By ELIZABETH BEWLEY, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Two Republican lawmakers from Tennessee say they're concerned that advertising policies at certain Internet companies may contribute to sex trafficking, even as advocates blame Republicans for delaying action on an anti-trafficking law.
Sen. Bob Corker and 18 other senators wrote Jim Larkin, chief executive of Village Voice Media Holdings, last month asking him to shut down the "adult services" section of the company's classified advertising site, Backpage.com.
"It took only minutes on Backpage.com's adult services section for us to find posts that present clear advertisements for prostitution of young girls," the senators wrote.
And last week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn co-wrote a letter asking Google chief executive Larry Page to explain how Google prevents "sexually exploitative advertisements" from appearing on its websites. She and her co-author, Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, called themselves "members of Congress committed to combating all forms of human trafficking."
But advocates say some Republicans in Congress are putting partisan politics ahead of the needs of trafficking victims by delaying reauthorization of the nation's anti-trafficking law - which expired late last year - because of an ideological opposition to abortion.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was first passed in 2000 and has been reauthorized three times with bipartisan support. It provides grants to organizations that fight trafficking, aids law enforcement efforts, and funds a hotline that officials say received more than 11,000 calls in fiscal 2010.
House and Senate reauthorization bills were introduced last summer, each with about 40 co-sponsors from both parties.
Trouble for the bills began in September, when the Department of Health and Human Services denied an anti-trafficking grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because the church group refused to refer victims for contraceptive or abortion services.
HHS officials said trafficking victims - who are often forced into sex - need access to the "full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care," including birth control and abortion.
Republicans called the decision discriminatory. Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, lead sponsor of the House reauthorization bill, rewrote it to include a "conscience clause" - which would prevent the government from denying a grant based on an organization's moral or religious beliefs - and to reroute funding for victims' services from HHS to the Justice Department.
"That, unfortunately, has led to the bill being stalled," said Cory Smith, senior policy counsel for the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking. "It doesn't have a lot of momentum compared to what it had."
He and other advocates, as well as some congressional Democrats, say HHS has more experience and expertise running victims' services programs, which help provide shelter, medical care, legal assistance and social services. Smith's new bill has no Democratic co-sponsors and has not received a committee vote.
Steven Wagner, who ran the HHS anti-trafficking program for three years during President George W. Bush's administration, said he opposes shifting the funding to the Justice Department, which focuses more on prosecuting traffickers than on helping victims.
But he said congressional Republicans aren't to blame for the delay in reauthorizing the anti-trafficking law. Rather, he said the responsibility lies with HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who "destroyed the bipartisan consensus."
"I don't think the role of the federal government in helping a victim regain control over their lives is to help them get an abortion or contraception," he said, adding that other organizations can guide victims to those services if that's what a victim wants.
No Tennessee lawmaker has signed on to a bill to reauthorize the anti-trafficking program, which is still being funded under a temporary extension. Corker and Blackburn say they're still examining the legislation.
"I do not know why (the bill) has stalled," Blackburn said. "Something needs to be done that is going to provide the protection that is needed. Exactly what it's going to look like, I can't define right now."
In the meantime, Blackburn said Internet giants like Google have an important role to play.
"The issue is about a lot more than just Google," she said. "But what we do have to realize is they... have the biggest footprint in the online ecosystem and they have a truly unique ability to help thwart what is a modern-day form of human slavery, and we need them to do that."
Google spokeswoman Diana Adair said Google has invested millions monitoring its sites for sex trafficking, child pornography and prostitution.
"But it's a constant battle against these bad actors so we are always looking at ways to improve our systems and practices - including by working with leading anti-trafficking organizations," she wrote in an email.
The State Department estimates that nearly 300,000 American children are at risk for sex trafficking. Internationally, at least 12.3 million adults and children are in forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation, according to the International Labor Organization at the United Nations.
Contact Elizabeth Bewley at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ebewley.