Divisive Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill Gets Senate Hearing

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The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act aims to stop websites that facilitate human trafficking, but many critics say the bill could also curb online free speech.

Lawmakers announced a hearing on a controversial anti-sex trafficking bill that’s pitted internet freedom advocates against human rights groups, opting out of a potential plan to rush the bill through as an amendment to must-pass budget legislation.

Supporters praise the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act as a much-needed weapon in the fight to take down online forums for human traffickers, but its opponents argue the bill could stifle innovation and open the door for frivolous lawsuits against tech companies. Experts on the bill will testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Sept. 19.

SESTA was among the hundreds of legislative items lawmakers were considering to include in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, a “must pass” bill that authorizes military funding for the coming year, Reuters reported. As of Thursday, the bill had not been officially submitted as an amendment.

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Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced SESTA in early August as an amendment to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a piece of legislation that prevents websites from being held liable for user-generated content. Among its many functions, Section 230 allows social media platforms to exist, news outlets to host reader comments, and shopping sites to display reviews without fear of being sued for anything its users post.

Though Section 230 protections have given rise to platforms like Facebook, Amazon and Yelp, they’ve also been used as a shield for groups engaged in more nefarious activity. Operators of the online classifieds site Backpage.com claimed immunity under Section 230 after receiving repeated charges for knowingly allowing users to post ads for victims of human trafficking, mostly women and underage girls, being sold for sex.

“If and until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking,” wrote California Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown in his decision to drop charges against three Backpage employees in August 2017.

As it stands, Section 230 immunity does not apply in federal criminal cases, but SESTA would eliminate immunity in state criminal and civil cases as well. Though this may seem like a minor change, it opens the door for any party outside the Justice Department to sue organizations like Backpage.

The bill has been cosponsored by 27 senators on both sides of the aisle, but many technologists and legal experts have strongly denounced the legislation for hastily addressing a problem without considering potential consequences.

“The bill targets some very powerful mechanisms in Section 230 and monkeying around with those mechanisms has the risk for some really unexpected consequences,” said Eric Goldman, an internet law expert and professor at Santa Clara University, in a conversation with Nextgov. Goldman, who published a blog post on Monday outlining his concerns with SESTA, is scheduled to testify at next week’s hearing.

He said he was relieved when he heard the bill would not be tacked onto the NDAA, a move that would’ve cut short any meaningful discussions about SESTA’s implications. While he stresses the need for Congress to address the sex trafficking issue, he believes even the smallest tweaks to the bill could lead to unintended repercussions.

“It absolutely would benefit Congress to make sure they understand how Section 230 works and how even slight changes could undo some of the mechanisms that everyone relies upon,” Goldman said. “I am hoping the hearing at minimum will spark some of the really hard conversations about what exactly some of the words mean. I think that kind of detail level scrubbing of the bill has to happen somewhere.”