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Consumer Watchdog Warns Big Tech Is Trying to Pull End Run Around New Bipartisan Congressional Efforts to Hold Backpage.com Accountable

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 11:40

Industry Pressing Trump Administration for New NAFTA Internet Deal That Could Protect Child Sex-Trafficking


SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today warned that the tech industry is pressing the Trump Administration to adopt language in a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deal that would protect websites like the notorious Backpage.com that facilitate child sex-trafficking.

The tech industry efforts come as Congress is taking bipartisan steps so websites like Backpage.com can be held accountable by victims and their families. Twenty-one Senators introduced a bill Tuesday, endorsed by Consumer Watchdog, amending a key Internet law to combat such abuses. A similar House bill has 101 co-sponsors.

Tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter say that law, Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act, protects Internet Freedom and are pushing for similar language in a new NAFTA deal.

“Internet freedom must not come at the expense of children who are sex trafficked,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director. “Just as the First Amendment does not allow you to shout fire in a crowded movie house, or to assist hit men and drug dealers in their criminal activity, CDA Section 230 must not be allowed to protect an exploitative business that is built on child sex-trafficking. Such language cannot be included in trade agreements."

The nonpartisan, nonprofit group has told the top US trade negotiator that he should ignore calls from tech industry associations on behalf of tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter, to include language in a new NAFTA deal that would protect notorious websites like Backpage.com.

In a letter to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Simpson wrote:

“Backpage.com, has become a virtual hub for child sex-trafficking. By one count 73% of child trafficking reports in the United States involve this cynical website. Backpage hides behind the cloak of CDA Sec. 230 while too many in the tech industry blindly and reflexively claim that needed amendments would undermine Internet freedom. Now tech companies and trade associations are pushing to enshrine their misguided view in our trade agreements.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/ltrnafta072717.pdf

In comments filed in June with the US Trade Representative in preparation for renegotiating NAFTA, tech groups, at least one of which – the Internet Association -- explicitly claims to speak on behalf of 40 tech firms including Google, Facebook and Twitter – have called for including language from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in a new NAFTA accord.

The bipartisan Senate bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 was introduced Tuesday by 21 Senators including Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). It would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the section of the law that provides a website can’t be held liable for what’s posted on its site by third parties. Tech companies and other defenders of CDA Section 230 claim it promotes and protects free expression on the Internet, but a US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations staff report shows that sites like Backpage.com aid and abet under-age sex traffickers using the blanket protection of the Act.

Find the Subcommittee report and an archived video of a subcommittee hearing about Backpage here:


The documentary, I am Jane Doe, tells the story of families victimized by Backpage.com and a report released by anti-trafficking groups, a subject of the documentary and Consumer Watchdog in May outed Google and other tech companies for backing Backpage and called for the Senate to act.

In addition to the Senate bill, the House of Representatives already has a bill that tackles the issue. The bipartisan bill, Rep. Ann Wagner’s H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, has 101 co-sponsors. It would also amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. A public hearing on the bill is expected this fall.

A recent Washington Post article, “Backpage has always claimed it doesn’t control sex-related ads. New documents show otherwise,” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/backpage-has-always-…) makes clear Backpage’s deep involvement in this sordid exploitation, Consumer Watchdog said.

Consumer Watchdog said that while It is possible that with the release of the new documents the company many finally be held to account for some of its abuses, it is still incumbent on Congress to act to end the outrageous and exploitive abuse of Section 230. Both the Senate and House bipartisan bills would do just that, Consumer Watchdog said.

In May Consumer Watchdog, DeliverFund, Faith and Freedom Coalition, The Rebecca Project for Justice, Trafficking in America Taskforce and Nacole S., a sex-trafficking victim’s mother, released a comprehensive report detailing Backpage’s wrongful activities and how Google has spent millions to fund efforts to thwart any changes in Section 230. As detailed in the report, primary recipients of Google’s largess are two nonprofit organizations, The Center for Digital Democracy (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). As documented in the report, CDT and EFF have frequently jumped to aid Backpage as it faced various legal challenges.

Read the report here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/backpagereport.pdf

Google, CDT, EFF, the Internet Association, the Computer and Communications Association, the Computer Technology Association and other tech industry representatives may claim to be protecting free speech and Internet freedom, but their activities have done little more than protect a notorious sex-trafficking hub from being held accountable by its victims, Consumer Watchdog said.

Backpage’s abuses and the fight by its victims to hold it accountable are the subject of the documentary film, I am Jane Doe, (http://www.iamjanedoefilm.com) which is now available on Netflix or can be downloaded from Google Play, iTunes or Amazon.

“Watch the film,” Simpson said. “You’ll clearly understand the abuses that blind defense of Sec. 230 enables."

The 21 senators introducing the bill are: Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bob Casey (D-PA) Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Corker (R-TN), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), James Lankford (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

The Senate bill would clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to ensure that websites that knowingly or recklessly facilitate sex trafficking can be held liable so that victims can get justice. The narrowly-crafted legislation offers three reforms to help sex trafficking victims. The bipartisan bill would:

Allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly or recklessly facilitated the crimes against them;
Eliminate federal liability protections for websites that assist, support, or facilitate a violation of federal sex trafficking laws; and
Enable state law enforcement officials, not just the federal Department of Justice, to act against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws.

Read a summary of the Senate bill here: https://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=2E2…

Read the text of Senate bill here: https://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=1DA…

Read a summary of reasons for the bill here: https://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=A04…

Read Rep. Ann Wagner’s H.R. 1865, which has 101 co-sponsors, here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1865

Read the tech association comments to the US Trade Representative here:

Internet Association (pp.3-4)


Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) (pp. 5-6)


Consumer Technology Association (p. 4)


Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) (p. 4)


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