Senators hear emotional testimony on controversial sex-trafficking bill

Senators hear emotional testimony on controversial sex-trafficking bill
© Greg Nash

The Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday took up a controversial online sex-trafficking bill, hearing testimony from victims' families who urged lawmakers to act.

The hearing room was silent as Yvonne Ambrose tearfully told the panel about how her daughter, Desiree Robinson, was trafficked online and later raped and murdered.

“If there were stricter rules in place for posting on these websites then my child would still be with me today,” Ambrose said.

At issue is the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), championed by 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 Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who have clashed with Silicon Valley over the bill.

The legislation would alter Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects web publishers from being sued for content posted by third parties on their sites. The bill would strip those protections away from websites that promote sex trafficking.

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Internet companies worry the bill could leave them unfairly liable for content posted by their users. But they are fighting an uphill battle to win over lawmakers.

Law enforcement groups and victims' rights advocates are forcefully painting the bill as a necessary step to crack down on sex trafficking.

Portman, who was added to the witness list just hours before the hearing began, testified that the bill is narrowly crafted to only target websites that are knowingly enabling sex trafficking. He insisted legitimate sites like Google and Facebook would not be affected.

“They have to be proven to have knowingly facilitated, supported or assisted in online sex trafficking to be liable in the first place,” Portman told the committee Tuesday. “Because the standard is so high, our bill protects good tech actors and targets rogue online actors like Backpage."

Backpage is a website for classified ads, similar to Craigslist, that has for years been accused of facilitating prostitution and underage sex trafficking.

Web companies insist they are going to great lengths to fight sex trafficking and that the bill would be counterproductive for those efforts.

“SESTA is a well-intentioned response to a terrible situation,” said Abigail Slater, general counsel for the Internet Association, a trade group representing most major Silicon Valley companies.

But she added: “We are concerned that SESTA opens up liability for frivolous lawsuits that do little for victims of sex trafficking."

The Internet Association has been leading opposition against the bill.

The industry group was backed up at the hearing by Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbying World Overnight Regulation: House to vote on repealing joint-employer rule | EPA won't say which areas don't meet Obama smog rule | Lawmakers urge regulators to reject Perry plan New tax plan will hinder care for older Americans MORE (D-Ore.), one of the original architects of the Communications Decency Act, who told the committee that amending the law is not the way to fight sex trafficking.

“Absolutely nothing in the 230 statute protects against violating federal criminal law,” Wyden said.

None of the committee members has come out against the bill, but a handful have indicated they are open to revising it to address the tech industry's concerns.

This story was updated at 1:50 p.m.