Harris, Feinstein Sign On For Bill Targeting Sites That Enable Sex Trafficking

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Harris, Feinstein Sign On For Bill Targeting Sites That Enable Sex Trafficking



California’s two U.S. senators said Friday they will back a bill to give victims and state officials more power to go after websites that promote or benefit from online sex trafficking.

Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein announced support for the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, which would reverse the immunity from being sued or prosecuted that Internet companies have had for years when it comes to third-party content on their sites.

“These companies knowingly profit off the pain of others and must be held accountable,” the senators said in a statement issued jointly with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, also a Democrat. “This legislation ensures victims receive their day in court and empowers state attorneys general to seek justice.”

The bill challenges the long-held position by Internet companies that they shouldn’t be liable for content they host, and California legislators faced powerful backyard opposition from companies such as Google and Facebook. Nearly 40 senators representing both parties signed up to co-sponsor the legislation before them.

The Internet Association, a trade group representing a range of Web-based companies, testified in September against the bill, arguing the legislation was too broad and could bring unsustainable legal liability.

But Michael Beckerman, the organization’s president, said Friday that it would support a compromise bill that, according to the New York Times, includes minor clarifications, including that state action against companies would use federal law.

Advocates for the measure believe it will force Internet companies to take responsibility for content on their sites, said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

“This is a big and good deal, not only for families of children who were trafficked, but for everyone who cares about accountability in Silicon Valley to the rule of law,” Court said. “This is a chink in the Teflon of Google and Facebook’s shield of immunity.”

Legislators and victims have in particular denounced Backpage, which made millions hosting classified ads for prostitution services in its adult section. The company grossed $135 million in 2014.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act after a two-year congressional inquiry into the company, which found Backpage “knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls and then covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits,” Harris and Feinstein said.

The decision by California’s senators to support the bill follows congressional hearings this week into Russian-backed disinformation during the 2016 election, with testimony on the role of Internet platforms from Facebook, Twitter and Google representatives.

If passed, Court said, the legislation will require companies to “police their platforms to make sure that the American public isn’t taken advantage of by criminal enterprises or illegal activity by foreign governments.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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