DOJ is not wielding its power to bring down online sex trafficking

If there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that sex trafficking is a horrendous crime, really the worst of the worst. Those who knowingly facilitate sex trafficking — whether it be online or offline — should be prosecuted and put in jail. Robbing the promise and potential of a human life is an egregious offence. One prime example is the notorious Backpage.com website, the leading U.S. website for prostitution advertising.

In August, Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate GOP reveals different approach on tax reform GOP senators: Moore should step aside if allegations true Senate set for clash with House on tax bill MORE (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocratic Homeland Security members request additional DHS nominee testimony Senate panel delays vote on Trump’s Homeland Security pick Steve Israel: ‘We had a better time at the DMZ than we’re going to have tonight’ MORE (D-Mo.) set out to thwart sex trafficking on the internet with the introduction of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). The bill would modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make it easier to prosecute websites that contribute to sex trafficking.

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On first blush this may seem like a good idea, but two issues should make us reconsider this approach. First, while the senators efforts are admirable, their legislation could have wide-ranging repercussions for free speech and companies doing lawful business online. Second, law enforcement already has the power and permission to prosecute businesses that knowingly facilitate sex traffickers.

 

SESTA’s proposed changes to Section 230 would begin the process of unraveling the essential protections that Section 230 provides to online speech. Without Section 230, we could see a time where online platforms are held responsible for content posted by users.

Think of Facebook being held legally liable for every post by one of its nearly 200 million users in the United States. And think of all the emerging online platforms that could suffer a fatal legal blow before they even got the chance to compete on a large scale.

This legal liability could force online platforms to block or remove lots of user content. And the proposed changes to Section 230 could discourage online platforms from enabling users to flag inappropriate content, since that could be used in a lawsuit targeting both platforms and users.

Section 230 has been the foundation of free speech and open commerce on the internet. It has enabled a thriving internet economy in the United States and attracted worldwide user communities. 

At the same time, Section 230 already allows enforcement of federal criminal laws against online platforms posting user content, such Backpage.com.

As Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said last month, the Department of Justice “already has the tools it needs to bring a strong criminal case against Backpage.com.” 

So far, the department has failed to bring an action against Backpage.com, despite calls from several sponsors of the SESTA. The department needs no additional power to make the internet safer from sex traffickers. Our federal law enforcement officials just need to wield the powers they already have.

While the intentions behind SESTA are good, we first need to know why the department hasn’t gone after sites like Backpage. Let’s not risk impugning online free speech by amending Section 230 since federal prosecutors already have the enforcement tools they need to take down the bad actors.

Carl Szabo is senior policy counsel for NetChoice, a trade association of eCommerce businesses and online consumers promoting convenience, choice and commerce on the net.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.