The House of Representatives has passed its latest anti–human trafficking bill, with just 20 lawmakers (all Republican) voting against it. The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2022 is the latest reauthorization of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act and, like the original, this one was sponsored by New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith. Its main focus is extending and expanding spending for various trafficking-related programs this year through 2026.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) said he voted no on the bill because “there was no cost offset in the bill for the additional spending, and much of the money goes to USAID, an organization I do not support.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) objected, among other things, to the bill giving money to groups that work with Big Tech companies. “I want to protect children and stop these abductions, but this $500 million Democrat bill won’t do it and only throws money at the problem,” she said.
Greene’s estimate of the bill’s cost may be a bit low. According to Rep. Karen Bass’ (D–Calif.) comments on the House floor, the bill authorizes “$1 billion to fund programs across the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services.” And Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–Texas) said it will provide “more than $1 billion over five years.” By my calculation, it authorizes $1,037,500,000 in spending for trafficking-related programs and $30 million on International Megan’s Law programs (which notify foreign countries when certain sorts of sex offenders plan to travel there).
Overall, the 2022 version of the human trafficking bill is shorter than many earlier iterations and lower on the sort of carceral solutions and surveillance initiatives that defined them. A significant portion of it is devoted to grants for programs to help trafficking victims move on with their lives—something that may be better done by entities other than the federal government, but at least isn’t simply throwing more money at cops for prostitution stings. And a section pressuring hotels to train staff on spotting human trafficking (an endeavor without a great track record) was removed from the draft bill before it passed.
But there are still some potentially troubling bits of the bill, including repeated references to “trafficking transmitted through technology.”
Activists and lawyers have been trying to broaden the scope of sex trafficking laws to cover not just underage or forced prostitution but also the transmission of certain pornographic images by commercial tech platforms. Note that we aren’t talking about entities that intentionally broadcast illegal content. The idea is to use sex trafficking laws against a wide range of businesses—including user-generated porn clearinghouses (like Pornhub), creator-driven content sites (like OnlyFans), and mainstream social media sites that allow private messaging or adult content (like Twitter)—if users of these services share sexual content featuring minors or people who have not consented to having their images shared.
Because the language in the federal criminal law against sex trafficking is so broad, this might be possible. It makes it illegal not only to directly or indirectly engage in sex trafficking but to benefit financially or receive anything of value from “participation in a venture” which “recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, obtains, advertises, maintains, patronizes, or solicits by any means a person” for a commercial sex act, if the person is a minor or has been forced, defrauded, or coerced. Some—like lawyers in this sex trafficking complaint against Twitter—argue that something becomes a commercial sex act if it is transmitted on a platform that runs ads, even if no one was directly paid for the sex act or the images of it.
The new human trafficking bill doesn’t directly change anything in this regard. But it could signal a vibe shift in sex trafficking law enforcement. It says the federal government will prioritize anti-trafficking grant money going to educational agencies that partner with law enforcement and tech companies to help “protect children from…human trafficking transmitted through technology” and groups that have demonstrated an ability to stop “trafficking transmitted through technology.”
In a more sane world, that would simply mean more focus on stopping people who post illegal content. But if history is any indication, it will more likely mean going after tech platforms in a way that jeopardizes a wide variety of free speech related to sex.
Interestingly, the bill admonishes the Department of Justice for not following through on congressional orders to do more and better data collection. “It is the sense of Congress that the Department of Justice has failed to meet reporting requirements under title IV of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2017…and that progress on critical data collection on human trafficking and crime reporting are in jeopardy as a result of such failure and must be addressed immediately,” it states.
And yet the admonishment is an empty one. Congress keeps ordering various agencies to produce better data on human trafficking prevalence, and yet these data never seem to get published, if they’re even collected. Meanwhile, Congress keeps throwing more money and mandates at collecting data and at raising awareness.
Raising awareness is the sort of initiative governments—and the nonprofits whom they give money to—love, since it doesn’t require measurable results. Give people a load of propaganda about labor and sex trafficking and voila—awareness has been raised! Never mind if any exploitation or violence was actually prevented.
It’s hard to get more than a vague breakdown of how money authorized is to be spent, but here are some basic parameters. The bill authorizes $16 million per year for Diplomatic and Consular Programs of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, $25 million per year for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to carry out things like education grants, training for trafficking survivors, victim services, and public awareness initiatives (including $5 million per year for the National Human Trafficking Hotline and “for cybersecurity and public education campaigns”); $89.5 million per year for State Department initiatives; and $77 million per year for attorney general initiatives, “of which $35,000,000 is authorized to be appropriated for each fiscal year for the Office of Victims of Crime Housing Assistance Grants for Victims of Human Trafficking.”
Perhaps some good news is that the bill does not reauthorize trafficking act money for various FBI and Homeland Security programs—neither of which has the best track record with “trafficking investigations.” But it’s possible money for these programs has been appropriated through other legislation and programs.
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