Why is Silicon Valley fighting a sex trafficking bill?

The government wants to change rules that allows websites to dodge liability for the ads they host, but tech companies call it counterproductive

Cloud services company Oracle has come out as one of the few technology companies to support a Senate bill intended to combat online sex trafficking.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) to hold websites liable for publishing information “designed to facilitate sex trafficking”. Until now, Section 230 has shielded internet companies from criminal liability based on user conduct.

The proposed legislation – co-sponsored by Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut – has become an unlikely flashpoint in the debate over free speech, with most technology companies, including Google, lobbying hard against it.

The bill stems from a two-year inquiry by the homeland security subcommittee into classified advertising website Backpage.com. According to the report that followed the investigation, Backpage.com knowingly facilitated online child sex trafficking on the “adult” section of its website. It did this by filtering the text of advertisements to delete keywords like “rape”, “amber alert”, “little girl” and “lolita” before posting them to conceal the true intent of the ads.

Backpage.com did not remove these ads or report them to police.

“If enacted, it will establish some measure of accountability for those that cynically sell advertising but are unprepared to help curtail sex trafficking,” said Oracle senior vice-president Kenneth Glueck in a letter to Portman and Blumenthal.

In an op-ed published Thursday, Portman cited statistics from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children that showed an 846% increase in reports of child sex trafficking to its “CyberTipline” from 2010 to 2015. Backpage.com accounts for 73% of all child trafficking reports from the public, according to the same organization.

“Unbelievably, federal law has protected its unscrupulous business practices,” Portman wrote.

He said the protections in the Communications Decency Act “were never intended to apply – and they should not apply – to companies that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. It’s time for this 21-year-old law to be updated for the 21st century.”

Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested and charged with pimping last year.
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested and charged with pimping last year. Photograph: AP

The tech industry and some free-speech advocates say that the sex trafficking bill paves the way to broadly and unduly hold companies responsible for user-generated content.

In an email seen by the Guardian, Google public policy counsel Stewart Jeffries described the act as “controversial legislation” that undercuts “one of the foundational statutes for the internet”, referring to CDA 230. He also pointed to work Google has done to combat human trafficking, including blocking sites like Backpage.com from advertising and getting its engineers to develop a tool that scans online ads to flag possible child victims for anti-exploitation charity Thorn.

The Internet Association, which represents Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter, penned a letter along with other trade groups to Portman and Blumenthal arguing that while “rogue actors” like Backpage.com should be held accountable, the sex trafficking bill “would severely undermine a crucial protection for legitimate online companies, and would be counterproductive to those companies’ efforts to combat trafficking crimes”.

“CDA 230 is a bedrock legal protection for online services,” the letter stated. “Without this crucial protection, these service providers would be forced to err on the side of removing their users’ content or face unsustainable liability for their users’ content that would harm the creation of legitimate diverse online services.”

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Senator Portman, told the Guardian the tech community’s claims were “absurd and laughable”.

“We did our due diligence, met with the tech community on a bipartisan basis for months and yet they offered no constructive feedback,” he said. “It’s sad that these folks would oppose a bipartisan, two-page bill to help stop online sex trafficking of women and children.”

“This is not a free speech issue, this is a crime issue,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “The internet has become a very easy tool with very low risk and very high profits in illegal activities in the sale and purchase of vulnerable young women.”

Several lawsuits filed by victims sex trafficking against Backpage.com have been rejected because of the protections afforded by Section 230.

The legislation has 28 co-sponsors from both the left and the right, a rare bipartisan display in Washington.

Last month, 50 attorneys general from states and US territories signed a letter backing efforts to amend the CDA so that they could prosecute companies that support, facilitate or assist online sex trafficking.

Support for the bill has intensified in recent days, with public figures including comedian Amy Schumer and former UN ambassador Samantha Power urging members of the public to endorse it.

Call your Senator/Representative to amend #CDA230. Join me in supporting trafficking survivors. #IamJaneDoeFilm @iamjanedoefilm pic.twitter.com/OmBAsUbOmd

— Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) September 6, 2017

A source familiar with the discussions between the tech community and Capitol Hill supporters of the bill said the fight was emblematic of the growing prominence of Silicon Valley.

“There is a certain level of arrogance here, where many in the broader tech community believe they are untouchable,” the source said. “Their bottom line comes before anything else, even commonsense efforts to rein in online sex trafficking.”


Olivia Solon in San Francisco and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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