Senate panel approves online sex trafficking bill

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill to combat online sex trafficking that has been the subject of an intense lobbying fight.

The bill has sparked strong opposition from many tech companies, but received a boost last week when a number of major internet players signed on.

“This is a momentous day in our fight to hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been championing the bill, said in a statement.  

Portman urged the Senate to take the bill up for floor vote as soon as possible.

{mosads}The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) revises Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from being held legally liable for content posted by third-party users. The changes would make it easier to sue internet platforms for facilitating online sex trafficking.

Online companies are worried the bill would undermine their business models and make them unfairly liable for content posted by third parties. The bill sparked wide opposition from Silicon Valley.

But lawmakers reached a breakthrough last week when the Internet Association, a trade group representing the biggest web firms, backed the bill after technical revisions to the language.

The group’s reversal came days after Facebook, Twitter and Google were grilled by lawmakers over Russia’s use of their platforms to influence the 2016 election.

But the revisions weren’t enough to win over watchdog groups who think that the bill could harm free speech online.

A coalition of technology groups sent a letter to the Commerce Committee ahead of Wednesday’s vote saying that the updates don’t “resolve some of the fundamental issues with SESTA that we believe will lead to increased censorship across the web.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the architects of the original Communications Decency Act and an outspoken critic of SESTA, announced after the vote that he would be placing a public hold on the bill, which will require it to clear a 60-vote threshold and could tie up several days of floor time.

 “After 25 years of fighting these battles, I’ve learned that just because a big technology company says something is good, doesn’t mean it’s good for the internet or innovation,” Wyden said in a statement. “Most innovation in the digital economy comes from the startups and small firms, the same innovators who will be harmed or locked out of the market by this bill.”

Still, SESTA’s supporters hailed the Senate panel’s move as a win for anti-sex trafficking advocates.

“Thank you @senrobportman for your leadership,” Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a top White House aide, wrote in a tweet.

It’s unclear when the bill will head to the Senate floor.

— Updated at 12:56 p.m.

Tags Rob Portman Ron Wyden

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