Tech advocates warn of language in trafficking bill

Technology advocates warn that an amendment added to the anti-human-trafficking bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday has the potential to harm social media sites and others that host classified ads. 

The amendment, which was approved on a 97-2 vote, is meant to make it a crime for the owner of a website to knowingly advertise prostitution of a minor. It was sponsored by Sens. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' Why Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry MORE (R-Ill.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe House passes bipartisan bill to create women's history museum MORE (D-Calif.). 

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But groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology, as well as Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenRussian interference reports rock Capitol Hill McSally unveils bill to lower drug prices amid tough campaign Graham: Trump has 'all the legal authority in the world' to pardon Stone MORE (D-Ore.), warned that the amendment contains vague language that could undermine the legal underpinnings of social media sites. 

“The vague language in Sen. Kirk’s amendment would mean that any website that hosts user-generated content, any social media platform, classified section and e-commerce site could face felony charges based on a vague concept of knowing and a vague concept of advertising,” Wyden said on the Senate floor earlier this week. 

Wyden said the legislation is unnecessary because existing law already allows prosecutors to go after people who knowingly profit from sex trafficking. The amendment has the potential to divert resources away from “real criminals,” he said. 

Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThree lessons from BIPA for data privacy legislation Swing votes steal spotlight in marathon Trump impeachment Q&A Hillicon Valley: UK allows Huawei to build 5G in blow to Trump | Lawmakers warn decision threatens intel sharing | Work on privacy bill inches forward | Facebook restricts travel to China amid virus MORE (D-Wash.) was the only other senator to oppose the amendment. Even so, both Wyden and Cantwell voted for the final bill, which passed 99-0. Companion legislation passed the House earlier this year. 

Kirk and Feinstein specifically pointed to Backpage.com, a large e-commerce site similar to Craigslist. The senators argued that the site generates “more than $30 million a year from their illicit ads, and ultimately contribute to the selling and exploitation of minor.” Kirk disputed the idea the legislation would stifle innovation. 

The Center for Democracy and Technology said a basic tenant of existing law keeps online platforms protected from being held liable for someone else’s speech. 

“The mere threat of being prosecuted over user-created content would discourage businesses from creating interactive services. This amendment would stifle innovation in one of the most vibrant sectors of the economy,” said Emma Llansó, who directs the group’s free expression project.