- David McCabe
- Sep 7
Sex-trafficking bill hits a nerve in Silicon Valley
Lazaro Gamio / Axios
Of all the policy fights big internet companies are facing this fall, a sex-trafficking bill with bi-partisan support on the Senate has them rattled the most. And it has the potential to escalate quickly as critics of Silicon Valley firms look for opportunities to hit them where it hurts.
The details: A provision (section 230) of the Communications Decency Act broadly shields web platforms from legal liability for what their users post or for filtering offensive content. This protects YouTube, for example, from being held legally responsible for all the user-generated content posted by more than 1 billion users. A bipartisan coalition of senators wants to amend that law so that victims of sex trafficking can sue websites that are found in court to have helped facilitate the crime. There's an even harsher bill in the House.
The backstory: Portman and others have been investigating Backpage.com for its connection to sex-trafficking for years, and cited the website for contempt of Congress last year. But lawmakers say that victims will still struggle to find justice if they can't sue the website for its role in trafficking.
- Courts have repeatedly looked at the issue. In August, a judge dismissed pimping charges against Backpage.com, the site that triggered the bill, saying that that Section 230 would continue to shield sites from from being held responsible for allegedly helping traffickers unless Congress changes the law.
Internet companies' reaction: While the companies themselves have stayed quiet, their trade associations and the think tanks they fund have come out swinging against the bill.
- The Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook, Amazon and others, warned the bill would expose its members to lawsuits and said that it "jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open internet, with serious economic and speech implications well beyond its intended scope." Noah Theran, an association spokesman, said in a later statement that the "internet industry has and continues to be committed to finding additional ways to combat trafficking and hold criminal actors accountable."
- The group said in a policy paper that a renegotiated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement should "prohibit governments from making online services liable for third-party content."
- The industry has also suggested that the bill could cause them to pull back on their current efforts to combat content related to sex-trafficking because being aware of the activity at all could expose them to new liability.
- Supporters say the bill sets a high bar for liability and is narrowly tailored to address only the kind of trafficking activity it's meant to target, including allowing companies to continue to filter offensive and illegal content.
- The sponsors were in contact with the industry for more than a year before they announced the bill. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Sen. Portman, says the companies declined to give "constructive feedback" on the bill.
- This week, lawmakers got a victory in their effort to get other tech backing for the bill: an Oracle policy exec said in a letter that the company supported the bill and that the "legislation does not, as suggested by the bill's opponents, usher the end of the Internet." That'll let Portman and others claim some Silicon Valley support and also gives Oracle another chance to stick it to Google in their long-running fight.