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Sex-trafficking bill gains momentum despite Big Tech efforts

Rep. Bob Goodlatte
Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

An anti-trafficking bill won the House's approval Tuesday despite a scramble by internet companies to slow it down in the final hours before the vote.

Why it matters: The 388-25 vote to pass the bill was a striking defeat for Big Tech in Washington as the industry is fighting more battles than ever. It now heads to the Senate and, if it passes, seems likely to get Trump's signature.

The bill that passed on Tuesday combined a House proposal that many in tech approved of with language from the Senate that worried some internet companies. The say the measure makes it easier to sue online platforms over user-generated content.

What we’re hearing:

  • Some tech groups scrambled over the last week to slow the progress of the legislative package. On Tuesday they questioned the process by which the Senate language was added to the legislation and drew attention to a final-hours letter from the Department of Justice raising concerns about one aspect of the bill.
  • "This last-minute letter from the Department of Justice is a clear signal that this bill has been rushed to the floor," said Evan Engstrom, the Executive Director of startup advocacy organization Engine. “There are serious concerns lawmakers must address to help law enforcement, tech companies and victims' groups end the heinous crime of sex trafficking."
  • House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) also declined to either recommend or advise against a vote on the package in a communication sent to lawmakers, according to multiple sources. That’s something that opponents could see as a sign of disapproval and supporters were able to see as acquiescence. Goodlatte ultimately voted against adding the language from the Senate but in favor of the overall bill.

Yes, but: The bill is backed by some larger companies in tech. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a post this week that the company supports "efforts to pass amended legislation in the House that would allow responsible companies to continue fighting sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that knowingly facilitate such abhorrent acts." IBM also sent a letter backing the legislation to House leaders.

  • The trade group Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook and others, supported both the House and Senate language separately but did not outright endorse the combined measure that passed on Tuesday.

What’s next?: Supporters of the legislation hope it will get a vote in the Senate in the next four to six weeks, an aide said, at which point it would head to President Trump.

  • "This bipartisan piece of legislation provides important tools for Federal prosecutors and State officials to fight the scourge of sex trafficking," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. "The Administration remains concerned about certain provisions in the bill, as expressed in the Department of Justice’s technical assistance, and hopes that these issues can be resolved in a final bill presented to the President for signature.
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