In Reversal, Tech Giants Back Sex Trafficking Bill
By Cecilia Kang, THE NEW YORK TIMES
WASHINGTON — After a bruising week before lawmakers, big internet companies including Facebook and Google relented to pressure in Washington on Friday and agreed to support a sex trafficking bill they had vehemently opposed for months.
The bill would allow victims to sue websites that knowingly support and assist sex trafficking on their site. State attorneys general would also be able to go after the websites that support sex trafficking content.
The companies had argued that they had worked hard to combat sex trafficking on their services, but the bill would jeopardize a free and open internet, as well as subject them up to many potential lawsuits for the actions of users.
But companies have come under increasingly harsh scrutiny in recent weeks, particularly for their role helping to spread Russia propaganda during the 2016 presidential election. This week, executives at Face-book, Twitter and Google faced tough questions from lawmakers in three congressional hearings.
Under those conditions, the bill, called the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, became an unpopular lobbying battle for the tech companies. Rivals such as the Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox, Oracle and HP joined civil rights groups like National Urban League in support of the Senate bill.
After weeks of negotiating over details, an internet lobbying group announced Friday that it had ended its battle to quash the bill.
The bill “will grant victims the ability to secure the justice they deserve, allow internet platforms to continue their work combating human trafficking, and protect good actors in the ecosystem,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association.
Congressional aides said the internet companies had been invited to weigh in on the bill before it was introduced in August, but they declined the invitation. The companies then forcefully came out in opposition, warning that it would expose web companies to numerous lawsuits because the actions of users were hard to police.
Lawmakers said the new bill contained modest changes that clarified that state law enforcement officials would have to use federal law as their basis of suits, one of the final sticking points for the companies. And the new draft contained language that only websites that knowingly assisted and supported sex trafficking would be targeted.
“This important bill will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who was a co-author of the bill with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
“I’m pleased we’ve reached an agreement to further clarify the intent of the bill and advance this important legislation,” Portman said.
The bill amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, established in 1996, that protects online companies from liability over content they hosted on their sites. Companies say that law has allowed internet services like Google and Facebook to thrive.
But with broad support, legislators said some smaller companies had hidden behind Section 230.
“Removing the unwarranted shield from legal responsibility will save countless children from horrific tragedy, both physical and emotional,” Blumenthal said.
Consumer advocates said that the law put the big companies on notice as well.
“This is a chink in the Teflon of Google and Facebook’s shield of immunity,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.