We’ve written a couple times to warn AAN members about
a bill that has now passed the House of Representatives known as the “SAVE Act”
(HR 4225). That bill, which might put AAN members who take ads for adult
services straight in the crosshairs of law enforcement, did eventually pass the
House by a resounding margin of 392 to 19.
But HR 4225 has become the least of our worries. The
Senate is now considering an even stronger version of the proposed law.
We understand this summary and analysis is very long
but it is imperative that you read it and understand what’s at stake,
especially if you advertise anything which might be construed as adult
services. If you do – and hopefully even if you don’t but you
believe in the First Amendment – you should strongly consider speaking
out against this bill as an ill-advised solution to a clearly important
problem, either by editorializing against the bill or contacting your
Senator. A shorter outline of the problems with the bill can be found here.
Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, is planning
to introduce a different version of the SAVE Act in the Senate soon. AAN Legal
Counsel Kevin M. Goldberg and Executive Director Tiffany Shackelford have seen
the legislation and have met with the Kirk’s staff on two occasions to express
AAN’s concerns, which are many. In short, the obligations created and the penalties created by the bill are incredibly onerous, a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that
the requirements imposed are unlikely to have any
meaningful impact in the fight against sex trafficking.
What the Bill Does:
This new Senate Save Act will do two things to make it
easier for law enforcement to find and punish those engaged in the trafficking
of minors for sex (that’s another big difference between this Senate bill and
the House bill: This one only applies where the victim of sex trafficking
is a minor whereas the House bill applied in those situations AND where the
victim was trafficked through force or coercion).
First, it reduces the standard of
fault required to punish anyone who sells, commercially promotes, places,
or maintains an adult advertisement used in conjunction with
commercial sex trafficking prohibited by federal law or similar state laws.
We all agree that anyone who sells, commercially
promotes, places, or maintains an adult advertisement with the knowledge
that the advertisement is being used to offer minors for sex should be
prosecuted. However, this Senate bill will also allow for punishment of anyone who is negligent
or in reckless disregard of the fact that an ad is used
to traffic someone under 18, with a penalty of up to 1 year in jail and/or a
fine for anyone who acts with negligently with regard to the age of someone
advertised and up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine for anyone who acts with
reckless disregard of the subject’s age.
There are two “safe harbors” created which eliminate
the possibility of liability under the new negligence or reckless disregard
standard. Not punished under this standard are certain types of internet
actors, including Internet Service Providers, browsers, external search engine
providers, external information location tool providers, common carriers or
generic search/utility providers. Also not punished would be anyone who engages
in certain record collection and notice requirements. To qualify for this safe
harbor one must:
Verify the identities of
those who purchase adult advertisements and those advertised
or depicted in adult advertisements by (1) obtaining
confirmation of identity, (2) obtaining government issued ID and (3) obtaining
other indicia of ID as required by regulation.
Maintain that information
for 7 years and making it available to the Attorney General and his or her
designates or any State Attorney General and his or her designates.
Identify in the
advertisement where these records are maintained located (with the further
requirement to provide a contact person if it is an organization that is
collecting and maintaining these records)
Comply with any other
regulations that might be drafted by the Attorney General, who has been ordered
to determine which of the following might be useful to require:
Whether anyone can be
required to review things like web postings before published to ensure they
don’t offer minors for sex or contain sexually explicit images of minors
Whether to prohibit the use
of certain euphemisms and code words for prohibited transactions (with
that “blacklist” to be created by the Attorney General)
How best to deal with repeat
Whether to require the
person posting an ad to provide credit card and telephone number (even if
not that card is not charged because the ad can be placed for free)
Whether to entirely prohibit
use of prepaid cards, virtual currencies, etc. if fee is required
How to require reporting of
instances of exploitation
What information should be included regarding how
people can report child exploitation
of infinitely greater concern, is the requirement that ANYONE who
sells, commercially promotes, places, or maintains an adult advertisement
– whether or not that advertisement is used in conjunction with
commercial sex trafficking – must engage in the record collection and
notice requirements. So, in fact, those requirements above aren’t a “safe
harbor” after all: they are an “affirmative obligation” to get
government-issued identification from anyone who places an adult advertisement,
any model who is “depicted” in an adult advertisement or anyone who is
“advertised” in an adult advertisement.
An “adult advertisement”
is defined as:
Advertising subject to
recordkeeping under 18 USC 2257 (generally covering visual depictions of actual
sexually explicit conduct)
Designed to produce a
commercial exchange for
Sex act as defined in 18 USC
2246 (generally covering contact with genitals)
Sexually explicit conduct as
defined in 18 USC 2256 (generally covering actual or simulated intercourse;
bestiality; masturbation; sadistic or masochistic abuse; or lascivious
exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person;
Commercial sex act as
defined in Section 103 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000
(generally covering any sex act on account of which anything of value is given
to or received by any person)
Goods and services of any
adult escort or adult entertainer for commercial sex act described above
That would include advertisements placed by legal
businesses or for legal services such as strip clubs, people offering or
looking for S&M exchanges, adult escort services, perhaps massage services
and, of course, legal prostitution. The failure to engage in the
record collection and notification requirements described above – for any
reason – could result in the following penalties:
Fines and/or Jail time of 250,000-350,000
and/or up to 5 years for a first offense, which increase to $ 350,000-500,000
and/or jail time of up to 15 years for repeat offenders.
Criminal Forfeiture of any real or personal property used or
intended to be used to commit, to facilitate, or to promote the commission a
violation of this law. .
Why the Bill Should Not be Enacted
The main concern for alt-weeklies, or anyone who takes
adult advertising – including those who simply take user-generated
advertising – is that they are clearly subject to incredible penalties
without any clear knowledge of where their obligations lie, without any clear
standard of fault if they try to do the right thing but get it wrong and with
little likelihood that any of these obligations are actually going to prove
useful in the fight against child sex trafficking.
Let’s look at a couple actual ads as an example, both
from the June 13-19 edition of the Washington City Paper.
The first is a picture advertisement with a shirtless
male and the words “Warning Hot Guys!” and “Free to listen and reply to ads” as
well as “Free Code: Washington City Paper”. There are phone numbers
to call in Washington DC, Arlington, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland, as well
as an 800 number.
The second is a purely text-based classified which
reads: “Pretty 28 year old. Full Body Massage. Open10 am-6pm” and then has a
Are these “adult advertisements” under the definition
in the proposed legislation? It’s hard to tell, especially for the paper
taking the ad, which, again, has no knowledge of whether any sexual contact is
occurring behind the scenes and perhaps could not have any idea as to whether
that’s occurring. So the only thing the publication can do is go through
the required record collection and notice requirements for every advertisement
that seems remotely capable of qualifying as an “adult advertisement” under the
That process is incredibly burdensome and presents an
impossible task for a newspaper—or anyone else. Remember, the law
requires anyone maintaining an adult advertisement to get government-issued
identification from 3 types of people: those “advertised”, those
“depicted” and those placing the advertisement.
We’ll get back to the second and third later but one
concern is that those “advertised” are any persons offered up for sexual
contact under the advertisement, as opposed to only those persons pictured in
the advertisement. Otherwise, why would the bill use both “depicted” and
“advertised”. That means the publication must get government-issued
identification from any masseuse, any stripper, and maybe any person that uses
that chat service to engage in commercial sex transactions. The bill’s
drafters don’t believe this will be much of a burden. Senate staff have argued
that the publication can presumably get even this from the advertiser, who also
has to collect it.
But what happens if the advertiser doesn’t believe
this is an adult advertisement? What happens if the advertiser slips up and
doesn’t get identification from one or more individuals? Either is a likely
scenario given the amount of people involved and the sometimes high turnover in
Or what happens if the publication,
despite all best efforts, doesn’t get identification from one person. Now
imagine what might happen if you’re Google (or Facebook or Twitter, which could
also be implicated if, say, a stripper promotes himself or herself via a
Twitter account). Are these companies required to scan every single ad
placed via their sites or advertising services, including those that are
entirely user-generated? As hard as meeting this requirement will be for
an alt-weekly with a small staff, it could be more difficult for a billion
dollar company doing business on a global scale.
The notice requirements will also be a tremendous
burden. The language required by the notice (especially if it eventually
includes information about how to report child exploitation to the National
Center for Missing and Exploited Children) will actually cover more space than
a standard text advertisment alone. The size of picture advertisements are likely to
be altered as well (making them bigger and, thus, leaving space for fewer
Just one mistake mandates a fine of at
least $ 250,000 and brings in the possibility of jail time and/or criminal
forfeiture of the property relating to the business. A mandatory minimum
for even one honest mistake resulting in criminal forfeiture proceedings
instituted against a newspaper isn’t the stuff of the United States (but
seizures of newspapers have recently occurred in Nigeria).
And there’s no guarantee that this works. In
fact, on such a grand scale the likelihood is that it simply doesn’t work. That
the system breaks down. Or, more likely, that those advertising adult
services turn to other websites, perhaps sites that are less savory and/or
located overseas. While law enforcement – and certainly Senate
staff – have disputed this, there is ample evidence that the more
mainstream publication websites that carry the majority of
adult advertisements have been cooperative with law enforcement in terms of
tracking down known criminals. Is the right answer to push those bad
actors further underground?
Now let’s turn to the other two requirements: to
get government issued identification from anyone depicted in the advertisement
and the individual or company who places the advertisement.
The first will provide absolutely no assistance in
fighting child sex trafficking, as the person depicted in the advertisement is
generally just a model who doesn’t actually work for the company placing the
On the other hand, the individual or
organization placing the advertisement seems to be the most relevant of these
three categories. After all, if someone places an advertisement for
sexual services, having this government issued identification on file will lead
you right to that individual.
Or will it? Is the type of person who is willing to
traffic minors for sex likely to provide their own identification? Or are
they able to – and likely to – get a really good false
identification and provide that as well. Look, it’s not that we want this
to happen, but the reality is that this scenario is likely to happen.
Senate staff claim that law enforcement can still use this false identification
to track down the sex traffickers.
But we’re not so sure and, given the incredible
penalties for non-compliance and the burden placed squarely on those who have
shown a desire to work with law enforcement in the past (as well as use their
journalism to fight sex trafficking, as the Boise Weekly did in this article
which, coincidentally, highlights the role the Internet plays in advertising
people for sex but also tracking down the criminals), feel there should be a
stronger guarantee that the proposed requirements will actually work.
Otherwise, they’re not only impractical but also constitutionally suspect
because the violate the First Amendment’s prohibitions against vague regulation
of speech, over-broad regulation of speech and compelled speech (and that’s
even before we get to the possibility of a prior restraint if the Attorney
General follows through on the instruction to create a list of euphemisms or
code words that can be barred from advertisements).
What Changes AAN Would Like To See (At a
AAN suggested six changes to the proposed legislation,
though even these may not go far enough to make the bill constitutional, let
alone palatable to AAN and its members. They are:
criminal forfeiture provision should be removed.
- The $ 250,000
floor for liability should be removed. There needs to be some judicial
discretion to assign a penalty that is reasonably related to the actions of those charged and to
the ability of the defendant to pay the fine.
- The definition
of “adult advertisement” is pretty vague and perhaps overbroad and, if nothing
else, though, the record collection and notice requirements relating to adult
advertisements should only kick in when the person who sells, commercially
promotes, places, or maintains the advertisement knows or should reasonably know
that it is an adult advertisement.
- There cannot
be strict liability for failure to engage in record collection and notice
because the liability is just too severe relating to the potential for innocent
notice requirements should be removed altogether. If law enforcement wants to
come find the location of the records, they can get it through traditional means
(i.e., asking or getting a subpoena).
We also suggested that the bill be limited to those publications or sites whose predominant purposes are
directed at adult services. However, we understand that this could be
difficult to implement, could raise constitutional questions of its own (though
it should be easier to justify narrow, well-drafted regulations of adult-focused
sites than those who touch the adult world only infrequently or as a small part
of their business because the bill is more narrowly tailored to uphold its true
– and truly compelling – interest of stopping sex trafficking), and
may provide a workaround for those seeking to avoid the law.
Our guess, however, is that the
bill introduced this week won’t incorporate all of those changes and will still
be a misguided attempt to solve a truly terrible problem. We don’t
have a problem with the intention behind the bill but we have serious questions
about the methods it uses to combat sex trafficking.
Again, if you agree, please
contact your senator and explain why he or she should be wary of this SAVE