Internet companies are fighting for changes to an online sex trafficking bill that they warn could have sweeping consequences for their industry.
The bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate would make it easier to prosecute and sue websites that enable sex trafficking, eroding part of the legal immunity internet platforms now enjoy.
The legislative effort has put tech companies, backed by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in the uncomfortable position of squaring off against law enforcement officials, victims’ advocates and a growing number of lawmakers.
At a time when large platforms Google and Facebook are already facing scrutiny over Russian election meddling and other issues, the industry is struggling with how to fight the bills without being seen as impeding efforts to stop sex trafficking.
“It’s fair to say that you can’t legislate in a vacuum,” said a lobbyist familiar with the issue who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly. “The fact is that this legislation is pending at a time when Google and Facebook are facing other battles that also get to their business practices.”
“There’s a common theme here: You look the other way when it comes to sex trafficking, you look the other way when it comes to fake news, you look the other way when it comes to fake political advertisements,” the lobbyist continued. “Could we at least hold platforms accountable to something, hold them accountable to little kids? How about we start with that.”
The internet industry says it is voluntarily taking steps to identify and eliminate online sex trafficking, but insists that the legislation would only hurt legitimate companies and make it harder to crack down on bad actors.
The fight is primarily playing out in the Senate, where Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken McConnell: Republicans 'united in opposition to raising the debt ceiling' MORE (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in August introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).
Lawmakers are trying to hammer out a compromise with the tech industry, though both sides are being tight-lipped about the details.
A spokesman for the Internet Association said the group is seeking a compromise.
“All members of Internet Association share the same goal of eliminating sex trafficking online and are actively engaged in finding compromise language to SESTA that allows victims to receive the justice they deserve,” said spokesman Noah Theran. “[Internet Association] and our members are talking to all members of Congress who are interested in a solution, including Sen. Portman.”
The bill is the result of a two-year investigation into the adult classifieds site Backpage.com.
In January, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report accusing Backpage’s executives of knowingly allowing prostitution and sex trafficking to proliferate on the site.
The report noted that Backpage had successfully fought off several civil and criminal cases by invoking a law that gives online platforms broad legal protections.
At the time, the panel, which was chaired by Portman, hinted at a desire to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That provision, which was passed as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, holds that websites aren’t liable for anything posted by third-party users.
As it’s currently written, SESTA would cut into that immunity by opening up platforms to prosecutions at the state level or civil lawsuits if they knowingly enable sex trafficking on their sites. It would also effectively put the onus on sites to proactively scour their platforms for possible trafficking activity.
Opponents of the bill say carving out an exemption to the liability provision would strike at the very heart of how the internet works.
Days before SESTA was introduced with a bipartisan group of 20 co-sponsors, Reddit, the popular web forum, hired its first lobbying firm to advocate on “liability protections for online platforms” and other issues, according to disclosure filings.
“It’s really not hyperbole to say that it’s the law that created the internet,” said Rachel Wolbers, the policy director for the startup trade association Engine. “It’s not just Facebook comments, it’s Uber ratings, Venmo, dating apps all use user-generated content. It touches every single sector of the economy that we’re creating on new platforms and technologies.”
If passed, the legislation could be overly burdensome to smaller companies and could lead to a flood of lawsuits, the critics say.
Still, while companies are mobilizing against the bill, they are treading lightly, stressing that they agree with the need to fight sex trafficking.
Susan Molinari, the top lobbyist for Google, told The Hill in an email statement that the company is open to amending Section 230 and is in talks with members of Congress, others in the tech industry, and anti-trafficking groups about a compromise. The company’s proposal “has received a lot of support,” added Molinari, a former congresswoman from New York.
Google’s involvement in the negotiations has caused some friction within the tech industry.
One person working for an Internet Association member company, who asked not to be identified, said there was frustration with both Google and the Internet Association at the outset of the debate.
“Google has gotten really used to be able to go it alone and then expect the Internet Association and member companies to follow suit,” the person said, adding that many members of Congress see Google as representative of the tech industry.
“Going back to the original issues with Backpage that started last year and the beginning of this year, there are feelings that [the Internet Association] could have approached the issue in a better manner than it did,” the person said.
Groups that would be less impacted by changes to the Communications Decency Act have also endorsed the legislation.
Companies such as 21st Century Fox, Oracle, IBM and Home Depot have backed the bill; all have been at odds with Google and other major internet players in the past.
“The Venn diagram of people who like the bill and people who don’t like Google is more one circle,” said a Republican lobbyist working on the issue.
Each of those companies told The Hill that their support for the legislation has nothing to do with industry competition or fights with platform companies like Google. Aside from writing a letter in support, most of the companies added, they have not been lobbying on the bill.
Kent Knutson, the top lobbyist for Home Depot, said the company is expected to crack down on any instances of sex trafficking along its supply chain, including its delivery trucks.
“We can sit there and check our trucks all day, and it doesn’t stop it. We’re happy to do it, but you’ve got to go at the marketplace,” he told The Hill. “This is just one of those things where if everybody does a little bit, we can clean it up a lot.”
The Republican lobbyist working on SESTA questioned whether the tech industry’s warnings would be enough to dissuade lawmakers from moving forward with the legislation.
“The point is, there is enough members who aren’t scared of them and this is the first time [members of Congress] aren’t scared to wade into a complex tech issue,” said the Republican lobbyist working on SESTA. “You can’t say that everything is going to break the internet. It’s a little bit of the boy who cried wolf.”