A new bill is working to protect victims of sex trafficking and is aiming to shut down the practice online. The bill has garnered support from a broad coalition of lawmakers in both chambers of Congress.
However, the legislation’s supporters are up against tech industry leaders in Silicon Valley, who are pushing back on the measure because of the changes it makes to a 21-year-old law protecting online freedom of speech.
The legislation which is called the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA, is the result of a two-year investigation conducted by Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, into Backpage.com, a website where victims of sex trafficking are sold.
Senator Portman introduced SESTA in the Senate last month. The bill would amend Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, so websites that participate in sex trafficking could be held accountable. SESTA also allows for civil suits including sex trafficking.
According to The Dayton Daily News, The Communications Decency Act which was finalized in 1996, was created to regulate pornography on the internet, and included a “provision” that aimed to protect website operators from third parties that might post harmful or illegal material on their site which included human trafficking and other inappropriate content.
The bill already has 27 Republican and Democratic cosponsors, and the Senate Commerce Committee will be holding a hearing on the bull Tuesday. There is a similar bill that was introduced in the House by Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Missouri in April which has more than 115 cosponsors from both parties.
According to The Washington Examiner, SESTA also is supported by victim’s advocacy organizations, attorneys general from 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and other social conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and the National District Attorneys Association.
Even though various parties agree that the bill’s goal of ending sex trafficking and assisting victims is commendable, some technology companies and tech experts are pushing back, worried about the impact the legislation will have on future innovation and free speech on the Internet.
The Election Frontier Foundation indicates that Section 230 is the “most important law protecting Internet speech,” and the organization and technology trade associations warn SESTA could lean online entities to monitor user content.
This has technology companies worried because SESTA would allow for criminal prosecutions and civil suits against web companies hosting content that violates federal and state trafficking laws.
Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and co-director of its High Tech Law Institute, said the bill could become a template for future regulatory efforts that don’t relate to sex trafficking, such as terrorism.”
Representatives on both sides are responding to the proposed sex-trafficking bill could lead to “endless lawsuits” for Internet companies, regardless of their efforts to monitor different internet platforms.
Senator James Lankford took to Twitter and shared a testimony of a mother of a sex trafficking victim testifying in court to pass the SESTA bill.
— Sen. James Lankford (@SenatorLankford) September 19, 2017
Companies such as 21st Century Fox are backing the bill. Portman is expecting more tech companies to follow suit.