The first Congressional hearing into a proposed law that would make American companies liable for online sex trafficking has lain bare the depths of the disagreement between lawmakers and tech giants.
The US Senate's commerce committee met Tuesday morning to hear from advocates and critics of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act – a measure that has unusual bipartisan support in Congress and would make an exception to the blanket protection given to online platforms over what their users get up to.
In the words of one of the bill's biggest advocates, Rob Portman (R‑OH), the new law will tackle "one of the dark sides of the internet" – namely the sale of human beings online.
He used the hearing to exert pressure on tech companies that have fiercely opposed the measure, noting that while the internet has done incredible things, it is also being used in terrible ways and the sale of people online "can't be the cost of doing business."
He also hit the tech industry where it hurts – in its sense of self-congratulation. "Silicon Valley holds itself as being more than just another industry, but rather a movement to make the world a better place ... the selling of human beings online doesn't make the world a better place."
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Adding to the pressure was the gut-wrenching testimony of Yvonne Ambrose, whose 16-year-old daughter, Desiree Robinson, was bought online for sex and then killed by her attacker.
"She was beaten, raped, strangled and if that wasn't bad enough, he slit her throat," Ambrose told the committee in tears. "Desiree's death should never have happened ... If there were stricter rules in place for postings on these websites, my child would still be alive with me today."
Despite the enormous sympathy extended to Ambrose, however, Silicon Valley argued back through the general counsel of the Internet Association, Abigail Slater.
Slater argued that a change in the law may be warranted, but that removing liability for online platforms was not the way to do it.
"We would support a specific amendment that would allow victims to sue for civil penalties in court to seek some form of redress for the horrible things that have happened to them," she proposed.
The vast majority of tech companies go to some lengths to prevent illegal activity from happening on their networks, she pointed out. Just because there are a few notorious websites that do not, that should not cause everyone to be subject to a new and potentially problematic law.
"The crimes committed through and facilitated by Backpage.com are despicable," she said. "Our companies work with law enforcement every single day to actively take down illegal content and in an effort to prevent and end trafficking. SESTA, as it is written, would make our companies liable for all their ongoing work with law enforcement."
And it is Backpage.com that is at the center of this whole debate. The company has driven the Senate – and Senator Portman in particular – to distraction.
Portman was chair of a congressional investigation into Backpage and spent years trying to force it to change its behavior before targeting its executives when they continued fighting against those efforts.
When Portman's committee subpoenaed Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer to answer questions, he simply refused to attend, resulting in the first contempt of Congress resolution in more than 20 years.