Politics

Sex Trafficking Bill Would Narrow Protections for Internet Companies

Senators say the bill is aimed at Backpage.com, not Facebook or Google

Sen. Rob Portman, shown here in 2015, introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act earlier this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Business advocates are looking to slow down a bipartisan Senate bill aimed at clearing the way for internet businesses to be prosecuted and sued for third-party material that promotes sex trafficking.

Senators are seeking to craft a bill that would narrow a liability shield in Section 230 of the 1996 telecommunications law. The legislation would remove protection for websites, service providers and advertisers for carrying content related to sex trafficking.

But the narrowing has drawn opposition from NetChoice, an alliance that includes Facebook and eBay. The bill would would raise questions about why sex trafficking was given special treatment and other online crimes like terrorism were not, said former Rep. Christopher Cox, one of the authors of the 1996 law and now outside counsel for NetChoice.

“There would now be a different rule for one crime,” Cox said.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, introduced the bill, which would make it a federal crime to benefit from “participating in a venture” engaged in sex trafficking of children. Of the bill’s 36 co-sponsors, several are Democrats, including Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

The panel’s chairman, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, said in an interview that he was laying groundwork to advance the bill, which would allow state and local officials to prosecute internet businesses and victims and their families to sue them for third-party content that promotes sex trafficking.

“We’re going to at some point probably mark that bill up,” Thune said in an interview. “It’s a stand-alone right now. We’re trying to get agreement reached among the stakeholder community, and with Portman’s office.” 

Portman and other supporters say that the measure isn’t aimed at companies like Google and Facebook, but rather at Backpage.com, a classified advertising service operating in 97 countries.

Backpage.com was involved in 73 percent of the child trafficking reports received from the public by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit group, according to a report by Portman’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The advertising service “knowingly concealed evidence of criminality” by automatically deleting from listings terms such as “lolita,” “fresh,” and “school girl,” the report said. 

The company did not have a representative testify at a Sept. 19 hearing, but has denied wrongdoing.

Noah Theran, a spokesman for the Internet Association, which includes online businesses, said the group and its members were exploring compromises on amendments with Portman and other lawmakers.

“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,” Theran said, referring to the acronym for the title of the Portman bill.

Some undecided panel members, such as Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, said they are looking at amendments that could address business concerns about the measure’s scope. Udall said he was weighing an amendment to ensure a liability shield for so-called Good Samaritans who take affirmative steps to root out content related to sex trafficking.

“The Good Samaritan makes some sense,” Udall said.

Critics like Michael Petricone, senior vice president for government affairs of the Consumer Technology Association, representing electronic equipment makers, said the bill will have “severe, unintended consequences” for businesses, including added costs for filtering material and legal expenses and liability.

But Petricone voiced interest in a Good Samaritan amendment. “Penalizing companies for policing their own network makes no sense and exacerbates the problem,” he said. 

Portman said he believed the bill was gaining momentum. “This has to pass. It has a good chance to pass. We’re trying to get people to understand that this is a very targeted approach,” he said in an interview.

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican and Portman ally, said some internet business were “in the wrong spot to be able to defend sex trafficking online.” He said he was concerned that moderators at Backpage.com were “in a position to physically change ads so that they won’t look like sex trafficking.”

Moderators are company employees tasked with reviewing listings and determining which should be deleted or banned.   

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