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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 KirkSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Senate makes SCOTUS nominee Barrett a proxy for divisive 2020 Senate Republicans scramble to put Trump at arm's length MORE (R-Ill.) and Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein pushes for California secretary of state to replace Harris in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (D-Calif.). 

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But groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology, as well as Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 | Defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal, includes White House cyber czar position | Officials warn hackers are targeting vaccine supply chain Government used Patriot Act to gather website visitor logs in 2019 Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill 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 CantwellTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing 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.