Experts Warn Congress Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill Could Backfire

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent subcommittee waits to open a subcommittee hearing into Backpage.com on Jan. 10, 2017.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent subcommittee waits to open a subcommittee hearing into Backpage.com on Jan. 10, 2017. Cliff Owen/AP

The well-meaning bill could have several unintended consequences, advocates testified to a Senate panel.

Internet law experts, human rights advocates and lawmakers warned Congress that a controversial anti-sex trafficking bill may allow human traffickers to increase their online presence, not eliminate it.

The current version of Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act may reduce web services’ incentive to moderate content on their sites, experts told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday.

Supporters praise SESTA as a much-needed weapon to take down online forums that enable sex trafficking. Opponents argue the bill could stifle innovation and open the door for frivolous lawsuits against tech companies.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

While all parties agreed the government should go to great lengths to fight sex trafficking, they butted heads over whether SESTA is the best fix for the problem.

The bill would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a piece of legislation that prevents websites from being held legally liable for content generated by users. As it stands, Section 230 immunity doesn’t apply in federal criminal cases, but SESTA would eliminate immunity in state criminal and civil lawsuits as well.

Doing so would allow groups other than Justice Department to go after any party with “knowing conduct” that facilitates sex trafficking, like Backpage.com has been charged with previously. Many state and local jurisdictions have filed suits against online forums that facilitate sex trafficking, but CDA protections have always shielded them from the charges.

“We need the tools to go after these folks,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “Without opening trafficking sites to state and local prosecution, we’re fighting with two hands tied behind our back.”

Others, such as Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, voiced concerns that the law may be applied too broadly, particularly under a standard of “knowing conduct.”

Currently, many internet services police their sites for harmful content. Sex trafficking ads and other posts, however, often use coded language that can slip through filters and moderation algorithms. Such behavior could be considered “knowing conduct,” Goldman argued, incentivizing some companies to moderate sites less to shield themselves from liability.

“As more services do less to monitor third-party content, we will see more socially harmful content online that would’ve been moderated today,” Goldman said. “Instead of stopping bad actors, SESTA will help them proliferate.”

Some lawmakers, including SESTA co-author Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., believed the bill would instead give tech companies the impetus to “do the right thing,” while others acknowledged that such behavior could have a high price tag. The costs of rigorous filtering services and lawyers to defend against potential SESTA lawsuits could bankrupt many cash-strapped startups and small companies.

“When it comes to legislation, we’ve had the most success when protecting Americans’ rights and protecting incumbent industries from smothering the innovators,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who co-authored the CDA, at the hearing. “I believe the legislation being considered today is the wrong answer.”

Tuesday’s hearing marked the first public discussion of SESTA since the bill was introduced on Aug. 1. Lawmakers said they plan to continue working with advocates and the tech industry to craft legislation addresses online sex-trafficking without any unintended consequences.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.