Online sex trafficking bill prompts opposition from Silicon Valley

Online sex trafficking bill prompts opposition from Silicon Valley
© Greg Nash

A new Senate bill aimed at cracking down on online sex trafficking ads is galvanizing opposition from internet companies who say that the legislation poses problems for free speech and many websites’ business models.

The bill, called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, follows a two-year Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations probe into the site Backpage.com over allegations that it had knowingly facilitated sex trafficking.

The legislation would amend the Communications Decency Act in order to hold websites liable for “publishing information designed to facilitate sex trafficking." It was introduced Tuesday by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh Sens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix On The Money: Trump backs off investment restrictions on China | McConnell opens door to tariff legislation | Supreme Court deals blow to public-sector unions, ruling against 'fair-share' fees MORE (R-Ohio), the subcommittee chairman, and is sponsored by a bipartisan group of 19 senators.

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Some of the biggest web companies have already come out against the bill. The Internet Association, which represents Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, said on Monday that the act would unfairly make companies responsible for what third parties publish on their sites.

Michael Beckerman, the president of the trade association, said that the bill was too broad and could hamper the fight against online sex trafficking.

“While not the intention of the bill, it would create a new wave of frivolous and unpredictable actions against legitimate companies rather than addressing underlying criminal behavior,” Beckerman said in a statement.

”Furthermore, it will impose new, substantial liability risks for companies that take proactive measures to prevent trafficking online, hampering the ability of websites to fight illegal activity. The bill also jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open internet, with serious economic and speech implications well beyond its intended scope.”

And Ed Black, CEO of Computer & Communications Industry Association, said that the effort would punish legitimate companies for illegal content posted by their users.

“Undermining critical legal protections for lawful internet services will not help in the fight against illegal activity online,” Black said. “Instead of stamping out rogue activity, this will discourage online services from developing strategies to fight criminal activity online.”  

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Portman, was dismissive of the Internet Association's criticism, calling Beckerman’s claims “absurd.”

“It’s disgusting that websites like Backpage make money off of women being raped and trafficked online, and it’s a sad day when anyone stands up for them,” Smith told The Hill in an email.

“This bipartisan bill preserves the CDA’s ‘Good Samaritan’ provision, which protects good actors who pro-actively block and screen for offensive material. So this bill both preserves internet freedom while holding accountable those who actively facilitate online sex trafficking.”

The Senate panel’s probe into Backpage, a classified ads website, culminated in January with a report accusing the site’s executives of knowingly facilitating sex trafficking by allowing users to advertise prostitutes.

The subcommittee also hosted a hearing that month in which senators from both parties railed against the Backpage executives who had been called to testify, but refused to answer any questions.

Some internet rights groups raised concerns with how the Senate panel pursued the site, arguing that lawmakers going after internet publishers could set a bad precedent.

And the new legislation, which is sponsored by most of the panel’s members, has already engendered opposition in the Senate.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenators urge DOJ to probe whether Russians posed as Islamic extremist hackers to harass US military families Dems say new emails show Cohen ‘selling access’ to White House Paul faces tough privacy decision on Kavanaugh MORE (D-Ore.) likened the bill to a law passed by Republicans and signed by President Trump earlier this year that repealed internet privacy rules approved by the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission.

“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is widely viewed as the legal basis for all of social media and it has been vital to the expansion of affordable internet access throughout the country,” Wyden said in a statement, referring to a provision that exempts websites from being held liable for content that their users post.  

“This proposal takes a wrecking ball to that foundation without so much as a committee hearing. It is yet another example of the technical ignorance of Congress threatening the jobs, lives and economic opportunities of millions of Americans.”

This story was updated at 2:53 p.m.