SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today praised the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a bipartisan bill amending a key Internet law so rogue websites like Backpage.com can be held accountable for facilitating child sex trafficking.
The nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group called on the Senate to pass a similar bipartisan bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, (SESTA) S. 1693, sponsored by Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). SESTA has 67 co-sponsors.
The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) H.R 1865, sponsored by Rep. Anne Wagner (R-MO), passed the House 388 to 25 after it was amended to include language from the Senate bill.
The bipartisan Congressional effort to hold websites like Backpage accountable shows federal policymakers are finally beginning to hold Silicon Valley and the Tech industry accountable for their actions, instead of taking a hands-off approach in the name of promoting innovation, Consumer Watchdog said.
“This is a major step forward not only for families of children who were trafficked, but for everyone who cares about holding tech giants accountable to the rule of law,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy and Technology Project Director. “This is a chink in the Teflon of Google and Facebook’s shield of immunity. It will have long range consequences not only for protection of individuals and families online, but also for a re-evaluation of these companies’ duties to police their platforms to make sure the public isn’t taken advantage of by criminal enterprises or illegal activity.”
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been interpreted by the courts to mean that websites are not liable for what is posted on them by third parties. FOSTA would allow websites like the notorious Backpage.com to be held accountable for facilitating sex trafficking.
Google and Facebook initially led the opposition to amend CDA Sec. 230, claiming the Act promotes and protects free expression on the Internet, but a U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations staff report shows that sites like Backpage.com aid and abet under-age sex traffickers enabled by the blanket protection of CDA as the courts interpreted it. By one count 73% of child trafficking reports in the United States involve Backpage.com.
“Internet freedom must not come at the expense of children who are sex trafficked,” said Simpson. “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 cannot continue to allow Internet oligarchs like Facebook and Google to shirk their social responsibility so they can fatten their bottom lines.”
The amendment to FOSTA that included the Senate SESTA language in the House bill came from Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA).
FOSTA, as amended and passed, 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 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.
•Enable state law enforcement officials, not just the federal Department of Justice, to act against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
•Clarify that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not impair or limit victims of sex trafficking from using their private right of action against the websites that sell them.
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 Democracy and Technology (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.
Facebook and Google finally dropped their opposition to SESTA as the Senate Commerce Committee considered SESTA.
Backpage’s abuses and the victim-led fight to hold the website 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 has enabled.”
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