House Passes Bill Trying To Stop Sex Trafficking, But Some Tech Companies Worry About Potential Censorship

Eric Lieberman | Deputy Editor

The House passed a bill Tuesday that aims to provide authorities with more capabilities to stop sex trafficking on the internet.

Known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), the prospective law will make some companies more liable for the content that people publish or post on their platforms or through their services.

Tech firms, like Facebook and Google, pushed back against the legislative effort for quite some time, arguing that the larger industry has been able to prosper because it hasn’t been forced to fully examine almost every piece of content or communication. Also, with all of the complaints of censorship, tech companies will be compelled to engage in the oft-dicey game of determining when it is appropriate to intervene in users’ activity.

But Silicon Valley seems to have decided to toe the line after some of the bill’s stipulations were circumscribed.

“Sex trafficking – particularly of young girls and boys – is one of the most heinous acts that takes place anywhere in the world,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote on her social media profile. “We all have a responsibility to do our part to fight this. That’s why we at Facebook support efforts to pass amended legislation in the House that would allow responsible companies to continue fighting sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that knowingly facilitate such abhorrent acts.”

There’s also another highly similar piece of legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), that will likely be debated in the Senate in coming weeks.

“Both the House Judiciary Committee and the Department of Justice have told Congress that SESTA won’t help prosecutors — because it’s generally too difficult to prove that websites knew the age of those being trafficked,” TechFreedom, a think tank, and Engine, an economic research and advocacy group, said in a joint statement. “Worse than being useless, SESTA’s knowledge standard will do real harm: if responsible operators fear prosecution for gaining knowledge of trafficking on their sites, they’ll inevitably do less monitoring — and not just for sex trafficking. That, in turn, means, they’ll do less to take down bad content and to assist law enforcement.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an influential tech advocacy group, has also adamantly opposed SESTA.

EFF, as well as TechFreedom and Engine, are worried because these bills amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) — “the most important law protecting internet speech” — and thus will leave websites vulnerable to litigation after they are mandated to do more investigations and spy on users.

“Many websites or services that we rely on host third-party content in some way—social media sites, photo and video-sharing apps, newspaper comment sections, and even community mailing lists. This content is often offensive when, for example, users make defamatory statements about others,” Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney for EFF, wrote in a blog post. “Without Section 230, these intermediaries would have an incentive to review every bit of content a user wanted to publish to make sure that the content would not be illegal or create a risk of legal liability—or to stop hosting user content altogether.”

EFF called the House passage of FOSTA “a win for censorship.”

Others, though, think internet companies like Google are using “free speech” as sort of an excuse for not doing enough to stop their technology from being misused, especially horribly.

“Passing this bill should be easy,” Fred Campbell, director of Tech Knowledge, wrote for Forbes. “But it’s been stalled by a Silicon Valley campaign against it. Why would tech oppose a bill aimed at stopping sex trafficking? Because it threatens the Valley’s unique ability to edit mass media content without being held accountable for the results.”

Campbell specifically references Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that reportedly features prostitution services, and was the subject of a Senate investigation. A federal court eventually ruled that CDA shields Backpage, and other internet intermediaries, from prosecution because a third-party posted the information.

Now, certain members of Congress, like Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, are trying to alter that law.

Google declined to provide comment and further details to The Daily Caller News Foundation upon request, and Facebook referred to Sandberg’s statement.

There are roughly 20.9 million victims of human trafficking around the world, according to 2012 estimates from The International Labour Organization. Approximately 55 percent are female, and 26 percent are children.

There were 4,460 reported cases of human trafficking in the U.S. in 2017, with at least 3,186 (or 71.4 percent) of those being related to sex. There were hundreds of others either not specified, or that included both sex and labor.

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