Congress is currently working on legislation aimed to decrease the Internet’s role in sex trafficking. Tech companies worry the proposed legislation will threaten their legal immunities and argue that Congress shouldn’t regulate web content or try to force websites to police themselves.
The Communications Decency Act (1996) currently protects websites from the activity of their users, meaning the owners of a website are not held responsible when someone uses that site to conduct illegal activity. In this case, lawmakers are trying to prevent the use of websites to facilitate sex trafficking.
Different approaches by lawmakers in the House and Senate are forcing “tech companies into a battle over an issue on which they have had to tread carefully,” reports The Wall Street Journal.
Tech companies like Google and Facebook certainly want to help stop sex trafficking, but they also don’t want to be exposed to expensive lawsuits by victims. “They also worry that any changes could lead to more exceptions from legal immunity for other online harms, such as harassment, revenge porn, or promotion of terrorism,” reports the WSJ.
Facebook admin Sheryl Sandberg has endorsed the Senate approach, which would amend Section 230 of the 1996 law to remove protections for websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and enable law enforcement to prosecute those websites. The change would also allow for civil lawsuits related to sex trafficking.
The House approach also makes it easier to for prosecutors to go after websites, but does little to provide relief for victims. Some have argued the House bill would actually make the situation worse.
The House Judiciary Committee is working on a “novel approach in tackling this issue that will protect good actor websites from baseless criminal investigations and frivolous litigation, while allowing vigorous criminal enforcement for websites that purposely promote prostitution and recklessly disregard the fact that victims are being trafficked on their websites,” wrote a committee staffer in November.
The effort to amend The Communications Decency Act is primarily a response to Backpage, an adult classified ad site whose advertising section is regularly used to traffic in illegal sex.
Reports of suspected child trafficking increased by nearly 850% between the years 2010 and 2015. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this increase is “directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex.” More than 70% of reports were linked to Backpage.
As reported last month by The Washington Post, Backpage uses a contractor in the Philippines to solicit sex ads from other websites.
Despite its crimes, Backpage continues to operate today. The site has repeatedly evaded punishment by citing the Decency Act, arguing that it should not be liable for the ads posted on its site.
A two-year investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations revealed that Backpage “knowingly facilitated online sex trafficking, coached its users on how to post so-called ‘clean’ ads for illegal transactions, and covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits,” writes committee chairman Robert Portman, one of the main sponsors of the Senate bill.
The Decency Act “should not protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us,” continues Portman. “I do not believe those in Congress who supported this bill in 1996 ever thought that 21 years later, their vote would allow websites to knowingly traffic women and children over the Internet with immunity.”
Portman insists the Senate bill applies only to “websites that can be proven to have intentionally facilitated online sex trafficking” and will not threaten “the years of progress we have made in creating a free and open Internet.”
The Senate bill has been endorsed by Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Disney, IBM, and the National Urban League. It is expected to reach the floor early next year.
Editor’s note: This is a slippery slope, the bill is on the edge of interfering with the 1st Amendment, and could quite possibly put force internet social sites into a censorship role. This is truly bad idea. Censorship of any kind can easily slip into political censorship, and free speech censorship. Let’s not get started.