WASHINGTON — Yvonne Ambrose, a Chicago mother whose 16-year-old daughter, Desiree Robinson, was murdered last Christmas Eve in a Markham garage — an online sex-trafficking victim — stood up to Silicon Valley during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Ambrose told her daughter’s story at a packed hearing called by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to get the ball rolling to pass “The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017.”
Congress has been wrestling for years with how to shut down and punish internet sites playing a role in sexually exploiting youngsters. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded in a January report that Backpage.com is the biggest offender when it comes to trafficking in minors.
The resistance to the legislation by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is coming from various web giants — Google among them — worried about safeguarding current web “freedoms” these companies take as an entitlement immune to change.
The senators proposal would revise section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, to allow state and local prosecutions of websites violating federal sex-trafficking laws — and to make it easier for victims to take legal action against a site that “knowingly facilitates” trafficking.
A hush fell over the room as Ambrose told her daughter’s story.
“We now know that an adult man found Desiree on social media, reached out to her, pressured her and used her to make money. She was preyed on and sold online by pimps who took advantage of her,” Ambrose said, at times holding back tears.
“Desiree didn’t know what Backpage.com was or the harm that would come from this website.”
“. . . She had been beaten, raped, strangled, and if that wasn’t bad enough, he slit her throat,” said Ambrose, a Bronzeville resident who is a medical assistant at La Rabida Children’s Hospital.
The man charged with Desiree’s murder, Antonio Rosales, who was 32 last December, is alleged to have used the website to find a young girl to have sex.
A man — the sex trafficker who drove Desiree to a garage in the south suburb last Christmas eve, and another man, who brought Desiree to the sex traffickers home for a finders fee – are facing federal sex-trafficking criminal charges.
I met Ambrose last May, at a screening in Chicago for a documentary, “I am Jane Doe” about the fight three other mothers were waging against Backpage.com on behalf of their teen daughters, all sex-trafficking victims who survived their ordeals.
Among those speaking at that event was Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who emphasized that this modern form of internet-enabled sexual slavery “is happening here, in the City of Chicago.”
Madigan has been fighting Backpage.com for over a decade. In 2015, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart waged a battle that led to the Supreme Court to try to cut off Backpage.com’s ability to take charge card payments.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Commerce panel, told Ambrose at the hearing that her sharing of her painful story “sharpened my personal resolve” to push for passage of the legislation. The two women also met privately in Duckworth’s Senate office.
After the hearing, I asked Gina DeBoni, the attorney at Romanucci & Blandin representing Ambrose in a related civil case filed against Backpage and other defendants — their lawsuit alleges Desiree was “being sold for sex” via the website — for an update.
DeBoni said the defendants got the case, originally filed in Cook County Circuit Court, sent to federal court about six weeks ago. She has a pending motion to try to remand it back in a Cook County courtroom.
Portman noted at the hearing that “courts around the country have ruled that Backpage has broad immunity” under the Communications Decency Act.
Said Portman, “Silicon Valley holds itself as being more that just another industry, but rather a movement to make the world a better place.”
While the Internet “contributes to our world,” selling children for sex online is “the dark side of the Internet. It can’t be the cost of doing business and it doesn’t make the world a better place.”