Internet companies announce support for revised sex-trafficking bill

Internet companies announce support for revised sex-trafficking bill
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Internet companies on Friday announced support for a sex-trafficking bill that many platform companies had initially characterized as a threat to online business models.

The Internet Association, a trade group representing some of the biggest online companies, said that it had reached a compromise over language in the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which would amend a law that some see as a foundation for the Internet industry.

“Internet Association is committed to combating sexual exploitation and sex trafficking online and supports SESTA,” Michael Beckerman, the group’s CEO, said in a statement.

“Important changes made to SESTA will grant victims the ability to secure the justice they deserve, allow internet platforms to continue their work combating human trafficking, and protect good actors in the ecosystem.”

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The bill would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that gives websites broad legal immunity over content posted by their users. SESTA creates a carveout in Section 230 that would make it easier to prosecute and sue websites for enabling sex trafficking.

“This important bill will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTexas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs MORE (R-Ohio), who has been the main force behind the bill, said in a statement. “I’m pleased we’ve reached an agreement to further clarify the intent of the bill and advance this important legislation.”

According to Portman’s office, the compromise consists of three technical changes, including a revision of the legal standard for whether a site is “knowingly” engaged in sex trafficking. The update changes the standard from "knowing conduct" that facilitates sex trafficking to "knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating" the practice.

But not all internet companies are on board with the bill, even with the revisions.

"To startups, modifying Section 230 is such an existential threat that we need to make sure that if we're doing it, we're doing it right," said Evan Engstrom, the executive director of the startups trade association, Engine. 

As The Hill reported last month, the tech industry’s resistance to the bill had put it in an awkward position at a time when major internet platforms were also facing congressional scrutiny over their roles in Russia’s alleged influence campaign during last year’s presidential election.

The compromise comes just days after Facebook, Google and Twitter — three of the Internet Association’s largest member companies — testified before three separate congressional committees on the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

Engstrom suggested that the pressure from this week's social media hearings forced the big internet platforms to cave on a crucial issue.

"No platform wants to be in a position where they're facing congressional scrutiny on multiple fronts," Engstrom said. "Even if you're a big company like Facebook, you kind of have to pick and choose where you're going to devote your resources."

- This report was updated at 5:33 p.m.