Free speech threatened in sex trafficking bill, Silicon Valley warns

Major tech companies are opposing sex trafficking legislation that would make them liable for content posted by users, arguing that the broad language in the bill could stifle free speech. Proponents argue it would finally end the “legal slave auction” online.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee heard testimony Tuesday on bipartisan legislation that would allow victims of sex trafficking to sue internet companies for facilitating such crimes.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, or SESTA, sponsored by Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and 28 co-sponsors from both parties, would make internet companies accountable for publishing information “designed to facilitate sex trafficking.” The bill would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which shields internet companies from criminal liability for material posted by third parties.

According to Portman, the bill would eliminate protections for “websites that assist, support, or facilitate a violation of federal sex trafficking laws,” and would enable victims of sex trafficking to bring litigation against websites that “facilitated the crimes against them.”

Major tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and others have lobbied against the bill, arguing that the broad language of the bill threatens free speech online.

Abigail Slater, the general counsel at Internet Association (IA), which represents tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, testified that IA would support “targeted amendments” to the CDA that would “allow victims of sex trafficking crimes to seek justice against perpetrators.”

However, Slater said that without the protections of CDA230 “service providers would be forced to err on the side of removing their users’ content or face unsustainable liability for their users’ content that would harm the creation of legitimate and diverse online services.”

Slater urged lawmakers to pressure the Department of Justice to prioritize prosecutions of criminal actors in violation of federal sex trafficking law. She also said that technology can be a “part of the solution” and pointed to several major tech companies that are working with law enforcement on initiatives to help catch sex traffickers.

“Ensuring justice against Backpage.com is possible without undermining all the work currently underway to stop online sex trafficking. We do not have to choose between justice against Backpage.com and protecting legitimate online services,” Slater said.

Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights group, released a statement arguing that “when platforms clamp down on their users’ speech, marginalized voices are the first to disappear.”

“Shifting more liability to Internet platforms for their users’ speech will inevitably lead to those platforms more tightly monitoring and restricting users' activities,” Cohn said in a statement.

However, Geoffrey Rogers, CEO of the Institute Against Human Trafficking, told RT that the SESTA legislation is “so focused and narrow” that the free speech argument against it “falls flat.”

He cited the fact that all 50 attorney generals sent a letter to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, asking Congress to amend the CDA “to ensure that citizens and children are effectively protected throughout the entire country, in all courts.”

Rogers told RT that web providers “need to be held liable,” for their actions, which he said have brought sex trafficking “from the streets to the web.”

“The internet was never meant to be a legal slave auction, and that’s what this 230 has become,” Rogers told RT.

In his testimony, Portman, who serves as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, cited a two-year investigation into Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that was found to knowingly facilitate prostitution and child sex trafficking. Investigators found the website’s executives were editing 70 to 80 percent of their adult ads, removing words like “rape,” “little girl,” and “amber alert” in order to conceal the true intent of the ads.

“In so many ways, the Internet has contributed to our world, but the selling of human beings online is the dark sides of the Internet. It can’t be the cost of doing business, and it doesn’t make the world a better place,” Portman testified.

In August, a judge in Sacramento threw out pimping charges against the CEO of Backpage, invoking the immunity provided by the CDA.

During the hearing, Yvonne Ambrose gave testimony about her 16-year-old daughter who was found beaten and stabbed to death outside Chicago after she was advertised on Backpage and purchased for sex by a 32-year-old man.

Ambrose argued the site “must be held accountable.”

“If there were stricter rules in place … my child would still be alive today,” Ambrose said, according to the Guardian. “The sex trafficking of minors should not be happening in our country … This is not a race, gender or economic problem – this is a people problem, a human problem.”

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who was one of the authors of section 230, argued that the current provision does not protect web providers or users from being prosecuted when they violate federal criminal law. He advised lawmakers to focus on providing law enforcement with the resources they need to catch criminals, adding that the proposed amendments were “the wrong answer to a serious problem.”

“The issues we need to address should not be whether to eliminate the freedom that makes the Internet a place of innovation and economic growth. The issue we need to address is how we should identify and lock up the criminals who use the internet, as they have abused a thousand tools before it, to create victims and destroy lives,” Wyden said in his testimony.