Congress battles Silicon Valley over upcoming US sex trafficking law

Crunch hearing reveals wide gulf in views, evildoer is Backpage


Despite countless efforts by law enforcement, Congress and the courts to shut down Backpage and put its executives in jail, they have been unable to win the clear victory they desperately wanted and expected. That was what led to the sex trafficking bill.

The bill would revise the 1996 Communications Decency Act to make it possible to hold website operators legally liable for user content posted to their sites, if that content is "advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims."

It is easy to see where the disagreement lies: lawmakers have discovered that the current law has continually failed to put an end to an egregious online activity – so they want a new law that will do that in future. Meanwhile, tech companies are aghast at the idea of changing the specific law that has done so much for the internet because it protected companies from the actions of their users.

There are two critical areas of disagreement:

  1. The risk of frivolous lawsuits as a result of the new law.
  2. Whether existing laws or changes to other laws will be much more effective at tackling the root cause of the problem.

Silicon Valley, and Google in particular, have warned that cracking the lid of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is going to lead to people suing tech companies with no good cause. The proposed law is too broadly worded and would ended up stifling free speech, it argues.

In response, co-sponsor of the bill Senator Richard Blumenthal (D‑CT) argued, "There will be no deluge of frivolous lawsuits as a result of this measure," because it was "targeted and carefully crafted."

Realities on the ground

And while Silicon Valley and privacy advocate Senator Ron Wyden (D‑OR) argued that a better focus would be to focus on the sex traffickers themselves (rather than the online platforms they use), California's attorney general Xavier Becerra argued that legit websites would not be impacted by the law and that it would help him prosecute traffickers. Currently, he said, "I've got to prove that it's sex trafficking and that the defendants intentionally violated that law. If we don't have the tools, the only winners are those who go to the internet."

It's really not clear at this stage how or whether the bill will progress. It has broad bipartisan support, but it is clear that Senators are uncertain they will be able to get it past the might of Silicon Valley if it remains implacably opposed. Several lawmakers urged the tech industry to step away from their opposition. And some, notably Oracle, have done just that.

The issue is, for obvious reasons, highly emotional. And that often makes for bad law. And there is no disguising the fact that Senator Portman is personally invested in the issue, having been repeatedly frustrated and embarrassed by the Backpage saga.

It is also notable that the issue always comes down to that one website: Even though the company and its executives have persistently flouted the law and often won in court, no one in their right mind is going to see what has happened to the company and its leaders and imagine that online sex trafficking represents a good business opportunity.

In short, remove Backpage from the picture and the new law may simply be creating problems for everyone else with no real benefit. At the same time, however, it is very hard to argue against a law that explicitly extends to the internet the protection of human beings from being bought and sold. ®

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