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Anti-sex trafficking bill draws tech industry's ire

AP

A bill aiming to combat sex trafficking has riled up pretty much every corner of the tech industry.

Why? Of course, tech companies aren't in favor of sex trafficking. What's got them panicked is that the proposal could make them liable for what users post on their platforms. That's a death knell for platforms whose entire business models rest on user-generated content (hello, Facebook newsfeed and YouTube). Right now, these sites are shielded from that liability.

  • Lobbying groups for big internet companies have slammed the measure. That includes The Internet Association, the Consumer Technology Association, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association. The startup association Engine is also recruiting people to sign on to a letter expressing concerns with the bill.
  • Advocates on both sides of the aisle are also upset. A letter condemning the bill was signed by think tanks and advocacy groups, from the Tea Party right to the very liberal Demand Progress. They say a "carefully considered reassessment of the law...is perfectly appropriate" but that this doesn't cut it.

Heating up: You've got big, rich companies facing off against powerful lawmakers on an emotionally-charged issue — all the ingredients for a political confrontation. The level of noise internet companies are making on this underscores how big a deal it is for their business. Expect this to heat up as they put more lobbying might against the bill.

The bill: The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, aims to update Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (DCA), which has provided a "broad layer of immunity" to online entities from being held responsible for "user-generated content" regarding sex trafficking. The bill also allows state law enforcement to take action against individuals or businesses violating federal sex trafficking laws.

The complaints: The tech groups said this bill would harm online freedom of speech, as well as harm legitimate tech companies with "costly and time-consuming lawsuits."

The techies wrote: "The legal ambiguity the amendment creates would have a chilling effect as platforms will err on the side of extreme caution in removing content uploaded by their users, while cutting back on proactive prevention measures."

Sen. Portman and Blumenthal responded: "This bipartisan legislation preserves internet freedom while holding accountable anyone who actively facilitates online sex trafficking of women and children."