Policy

Senate Pushes Anti-Sex Trafficking Deal Ahead

Passage assured this week despite concerns from some internet businesses

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, left, is concerned that a measure championed by Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to combat sex trafficking could have unintended consequences and make it more difficult to pursue traffickers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers championing a bipartisan bill to make it easier to go after sex trafficking on the internet are on the verge of victory.

In the Senate, it’s a large coalition that’s been led by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Portman pitched the legislation as a much-needed update to a 1996 communications law written when the internet was still in its infancy. What once was intended to protect companies and children is now being exploited by traffickers, he said.

“There needed to be something to help provide protection from liability. But unfortunately, it has been used as a shield by these criminals to be able to sell women and children online without accountability,” Portman said last week. “The same law written back then was also focused in part on keeping indecent material, pornography, from going to children, ironically.” 

Senators voted, 94-2, to limit debate on taking up the final amended version of the House-passed bill Monday, with provisions from Portman and Blumenthal incorporated.

In developing the final bill, members of the House and Senate addressed some concerns raised by technology companies, which split on eventual support for the legislation.

That split was apparent in the reaction to House passage of the bill from the Internet Association, which represents a diverse collection of internet-based companies.

The group said it shared the goals of the supporting legislators, but also voiced concerns about the effect of narrowing the immunity protection afforded to computer service providers so that companies like Backpage.com — which has been found to host sex trafficking classified ads — may be culpable.

Rep. Ann Wagner, who introduced the underlying bill in the House, said Monday that the final deal tracks with the legislation she originally introduced in April 2017, and more so, it appears, than an amended version forwarded by the House Judiciary Committee.

“I’m just so thrilled to marry the two up and to finally reinstate the victim-centered provision that was in my original bill,” the Missouri Republican said in an interview. “We have been working with advocates, with victims rights groups, with some of the tech community and, most near-and-dear to my heart, with prosecutors and district attorneys and law enforcement.”

Wagner said the legislation would give law enforcement more options.

“What this does on the criminal side is it allows these district attorneys to use both the sex trafficking statute and the prostitution statute, so they’ve got more tools in their toolboxes, more resources, however you want to put it, to make sure that they can go after these bad actor websites,” she said.

Some internet giants took part in the process to address concerns with the bill, while others largely worked for its defeat.

Facebook is among the companies that have come down in favor of its passage.

“We all have a responsibility to do our part to fight this. That’s why we at Facebook support efforts to pass amended legislation in the House that would allow responsible companies to continue fighting sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that knowingly facilitate such abhorrent acts,” Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote on the social media site.

Some companies were behind the legislative effort early on — Wagner named IBM and Oracle as being on that list.

Tech companies learned it was not easy to be against something billed as getting tough on sex traffickers, but that’s the predicament in which one of the primary authors of the 1996 communications law finds himself.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon worries that the bill being considered could actually make it harder to find sex traffickers and that Congress’ overall lack of technological know-how could unintentionally hamper internet development.

“I take a backseat to no one when it comes to fighting sex trafficking and locking up the monsters who prey on the defenseless,” he said when the bill passed the House. “I have authored laws to support victims and provide ongoing funding paid for by those convicted of heinous crimes against children, and authored laws to improve the child welfare system to help prevent children from becoming victims in the first place.”

Wyden’s not alone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues the bill could tip the scales in favor of powerhouse internet companies with large legal departments.

“They may also have the budgets to implement a mix of automated filters and human censors to comply with the law. Small startups don’t. And with the increased risk of litigation, it would be difficult for new startups ever to find the funding they need to compete with Google,” the EFF wrote.

The package clearly has White House support, however.

Blumenthal, Portman and Wagner huddled at the White House last Tuesday along with Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Republican Rep. Mimi Walters of California. Outside advocates joined them for a session in the Roosevelt Room led off by senior adviser Ivanka Trump and legislative affairs chief Marc Short.

One emphasis during the closed press part of that roundtable was making sure the Senate took up the legislation without further amendment, so that it could get to the president’s desk as soon as possible.

“It was never, ever Congress’ intent to make the internet a red-light district,” Wagner said. “If it’s a crime offline, it should be a crime and criminal activity online.”

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