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Sex Trafficking: Online Platforms and Federal Prosecutions

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Online sex trafficking platforms
GAO analysis of court documents and DOJ press releases | GAO-21-385

Online marketing and communication platforms can enable sex trafficking—the commercial sexual exploitation of adults through force, fraud or coercion, or children under the age of 18 (with or without force, fraud, or coercion)—by making it easier for traffickers to exploit victims and connect with buyers.

The internet has made it easier for sex traffickers to exploit victims and connect with buyers. Traffickers often use social media and these 3 types of platforms:

  • Advertising (classified ad sites for sex services)

  • "Hobby board" (review sites for sex services)

  • "Sugar dating" (dating sites that include commercial arrangements)

Section 3 of Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) established criminal penalties for those who promote or facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking through their control of online platforms. It also allows for those injured by an aggravated violation involving the promotion of prostitution of five or more people or reckless disregard of sex trafficking to recover damages in a federal civil action. It also makes federal criminal restitution mandatory for aggravated offenses contributing to sex trafficking.

FOSTA includes a provision for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to provide detailed information on restitution and civil damages. “Sex Trafficking: Online Platforms and Federal Prosecutions,” GAO-21-385, June 21, 2021, examines:

  • Department of Justice (DOJ) enforcement efforts against online platforms that promote prostitution and sex trafficking, from 2014 through 2020

  • The extent to which criminal restitution and civil damages have been sought and awarded for aggravated violations under section 3 of FOSTA.

GAO reviewed federal criminal cases brought against those who controlled platforms in the online commercial sex market from 2014 through 2020; visited a selection of online platforms in this market; and conducted a legal search to identify criminal and civil cases brought pursuant to section 3 of FOSTA. GAO also interviewed DOJ officials and representatives from third parties.

Full Report (56 pages)

Highlights (1 page)

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