Imagine taking shelter from a downpour under a large umbrella, when an unkempt gentleman in a trench coat and no pants joins you to avail himself of the same protection.
That’s the situation Google finds itself in with respect to a law that shields companies running websites from liability over material posted by others.
For the Mountain View tech giant and many other Silicon Valley companies operating sites that host third-party content, the protection from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is vital to their business interests.
And the guy in the trench coat? That would be Backpage, a website that hosts ads for escorts, and that has been the subject of many legal cases alleging that the site facilitates not only prostitution, but sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. Backpage’s ads, like, for example, Twitter tweets or material served up in Google Search, are produced by third parties.
But now a consumer-advocacy organization has issued a report this week cataloguing Google’s financial support of groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are fighting changes to Section 230. Consumer Watchdog, which put out the report, is demanding that Google support amendments to the CDA that would “allow Backpage to be held accountable for its ongoing facilitating of child sex trafficking.”
Google said in a statement that it, like many other internet firms, has contributed to groups such as the EFF “because of their advocacy on a wide range of internet issues, including privacy, surveillance reform and the open internet.
“At the same time, we will continue to use our technology to combat the tragedy of child sex trafficking, will continue our significant funding of organizations that combat this crime, and maintain our zero-tolerance approach to ads for this illegal activity.”
Former California Attorney-General Kamala Harris, now a Democrat U.S. Senator for California, has called Backpage an “online brothel” and exploiter of children. Soon after the owners and CEO of the website were exonerated in early December in California court of pimping and other felony charges, Harris, claiming “new evidence,” hit the three men — Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin — with 26 counts of money laundering and 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.
In seven of the pimping counts, the victims were children, Harris’ office said in a press release.
Backpage did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The allegations against it remain unproven.
Consumer Watchdog said it supports a House bill that would strip websites of Communications Decency Act protection from prosecution under other laws, in cases of sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking.
The bill, H.R. 1865, “amends the federal criminal code to specify that the violation for benefiting from ‘participation in a venture’ engaged in sex trafficking of children, or by force, fraud, or coercion, includes knowing or reckless conduct by any person or entity and by any means that furthers or in any way aids or abets the violation.”
Consumer Watchdog said it also supports a letter from 48 state attorneys general, including Harris, asking Congress to amend the CDA so that the act, according to the letter, “restores to State and local authorities their traditional jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute those who promote prostitution and endanger our children.”