Speech groups alarmed by sex trafficking bill

Free-speech groups are resisting a House effort to crack down on advertisements for girls and women who have been forced into prostitution.

The bill from Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), which will hit the House floor on Tuesday afternoon, would make it a federal crime to advertise child prostitution or sex trafficking.

In the process, however, it could unintentionally hurt companies across the Internet with vague definitions and broad new prohibitions, critics say.

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“I think everybody can agree that efforts to combat and ban trafficking of all sorts are crucially important,” said Gabe Rottman, a legislative counsel and policy adviser with the American Civil Liberties Union. “At the same time, when it comes to free speech online we need to be very careful to properly calibrate laws so that we don’t take down too much speech in order to get at the bad stuff.”

The bill, called the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, adds advertising to the list of activities that constitute sex trafficking under federal law. It’s an attempt to target websites like Backpage.com, an online classified ad forum that has long been criticized for its adult postings.

“This is a key link in the chain of shutting down sex slavery in the worst, horrific ways,” Wagner said at a press conference on Tuesday. “People are profiting, making millions of dollars advertising and selling our children.”

U.S. online advertising for prostitution added up to $45 million in 2013, according to the advertising consultant firm AIM Group.

But critics say the bill could encourage websites to tone down legitimate online ads in order to avoid criminal charges. It also does not clarify what precisely an ad is, which could theoretically lead to complaints against Twitter, Facebook or any other site that lets users post information online.

“This situation would also create a potentially powerful heckler’s veto mechanism: if someone wanted to see a particular piece of sexually oriented content removed from a site, all they would have to do is report it as a suspected trafficking advertisement,” wrote Emma Llansó, the head of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s free expression project, in a blog post.

Also, by criminalizing sites that knowingly host the ads, the bill could “create the perverse incentive where companies will try and go willfully blind,” said Rottman, “and they’ll stop screening ads for illegal content completely so that they can throw up their hands and say ‘I had no chance of knowing.’ ”

Wagner dismissed those concerns on Tuesday.

“We as a society and a Congress legislate commercial advertising for illegal crimes whether it has to do with narcotics, with pornography, with some of the animal and victims issues,” she noted. “Why not our children, our women and little girls that are held in slavery?”

The bill is one of five aiming to stop human trafficking that the House will take up on Tuesday.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said that the push was about “ending trafficking for good.”

“We must confront this issue head-on, not just as Republicans, not just as Democrats, but as dads, as moms, as sisters and brothers,” he said. “We must protect our children.” 

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