Tech companies oppose online sex-trafficking bill in emotional hearing

The tech industry’s opposition to a proposed bill is causing Google and other big companies to be lumped in with sex traffickers, such as in this headline on a New York Times column earlier this month: “Google and Sex Traffickers Like Backpage.com.”

Facebook, Twitter and other companies also oppose the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, which would update the 1990s-era Communications Decency Act to hold website operators such as Backpage accountable for enabling sex trafficking.

But tech companies stress that their stance does not mean they support sex trafficking.

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The “legitimate tech companies” support changes to the CDA that would hold “bad actors” accountable, Internet Association general counsel Abigail Slater said during her testimony Tuesday in front of the Senate Commerce Committee in Washington. The hearing was live-streamed.

The Internet Association counts the internet’s biggest companies among its members, and they are trying to help stop sex trafficking, too, Slater said. But she said SESTA would “undermine internet companies’ ability to invest in innovations and best practices,” to deal with the problem, calling the bill a “well-intentioned response to a terrible situation.” SESTA is too vague, broad and “opens up liability for frivolous lawsuits,” she said.

Small startups would be most vulnerable to such lawsuits, SESTA opponents say.

“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ensures that online companies are not liable for the content posted by their users,” Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said in a written statement Tuesday. “This law is crucial to the Internet economy, and Congress should avoid weakening it.”

In addition, the tech industry said the bill could threaten free speech.

But the testimony by proponents of SESTA during Tuesday’s hearing was compelling.

“Section 230 is standing in the way of justice for my child and other Jane Does like her,” said Yvonne Ambrose, the mother of Desiree Robinson, a 16-year-old Chicago girl who was found dead in a garage on Christmas Eve last year. A man who used Backpage is accused of beating and raping her, and slitting her throat.

“If we don’t speak up now, these websites will continue to keep profiting off trafficking our babies,” a tearful Ambrose said as she pleaded with the senators to pass the bill to amend Section 230.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, one of the authors of the bipartisan bill, said during the hearing that he met a young woman who was first sold on Backpage.com when she was 9 years old — by her dad, who took her to sporting events “from city to city” to pimp her out. Victims tell Portman sex trafficking “has moved from the street corner, or the street, to the smartphone,” he said.

SESTA is “narrowly tailored and goes only after sex trafficking,” said Xavier Becerra, California’s state attorney general at the hearing. Law enforcement needs the bill because with the CDA, “we’re fighting with two hands tied behind our backs,” he added.

But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, one of the authors of Section 230 and opponent of SESTA as it’s currently written, weighed in: “Absolutely nothing in the 230 statute protects against violating federal criminal law,” he said. Likewise, tech companies and others that oppose SESTA, say there are laws in place to hold sex traffickers accountable.

A Senate report found that online marketplace Backpage.com facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking — and was responsible for about three-fourths of such activity in the United States — and the website was forced to officially close its “Adult” section in January. But to this day, a search of its “Dating” section yields plenty of ads containing sexual content.

The senators who listened to both sides’ testimony ended on an optimistic note that tech companies could work with the bill’s authors to make changes that would be acceptable to all stakeholders.

This year, there are 9,700 reports of child sex trafficking so far, Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said during the hearing Tuesday.

 

Photos: Google and Facebook signs. (AP, left, and AFP/Getty Images, right)

 

Tags: Backpage, Communications Decency Act, facebook, Google, legislation, SESTA, sex trafficking, twitter

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