Senate passes controversial online sex trafficking bill
The Senate on Wednesday passed a controversial online sex trafficking bill, sending it to President Trump’s desk over concerns from the tech industry, capping off a months-long legislative fight.
The bill was approved overwhelmingly in a 97-2 vote. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were the only votes against the bill.
The legislation, called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), but also referred to as SESTA after the original Senate bill, would cut into the broad protections websites have from legal liability for content posted by their users.
“We now have the ability to go after these websites who are exploiting women and children online,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the original authors of the bill, said at a press conference after the vote.
The House overwhelmingly passed the bill last month, and President Trump is expected to sign it.
The legal liability protections are codified in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from 1996, a law that many internet companies see as vital to protecting their platforms. SESTA would amend that law to create an exception for sex trafficking, making it easier to target websites with legal action for enabling such crimes.
Wyden, the most outspoken critic of SESTA and one of the authors of the Communications Decency Act, said that making exceptions to Section 230 will lead to small internet companies having to face an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits.
“In the absence of Section 230, the internet as we know it would shrivel,” Wyden said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote Wednesday. “Only the platforms run by those with deep pockets, and an even deeper bench of lawyers, would be able to make it.”
The Oregon Democrat also noted opposition from groups as varied as the Cato Institute, the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union.
But some lawmakers and anti-sex trafficking advocates think the law has gotten in the way of efforts to go after online trafficking suspects like Backpage.com.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a co-author of SESTA and a former prosecutor, called Section 230 “outdated and obsolete” during Wednesday’s press conference.
Most internet giants have gone quiet in the fight over the controversial bill. Facebook endorsed SESTA as the company faces scrutiny on other fronts, in particular alleged Russian efforts to use their platform to conduct a disinformation campaign targeting U.S. voters during the 2016 election season.
But the bill was also championed by technology companies, such as IBM, Oracle and Hewlett Packard, that have been at odds with Silicon Valley. They argued that online companies enjoy overly broad legal protections while being subject to very little regulation, leading to pervasive problems like online sex trafficking.
The passage of the bill is widely seen as a major legislative loss for Silicon Valley, and perhaps the first in an era where the industry is being viewed much more critically by lawmakers.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he believes the bill sends a message to tech giants.
“I think that in the future tech companies have to understand that it’s not the Wild West and they have to exercise responsibility,” Thune said.
This story was updated at 4:47 p.m.