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Sex Trafficking Bill Soothes a Tech Worry With Focus on Intent

Published on .

Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A new version of a House bill that aims to curb online sex trafficking could ease concerns of big internet companies including Google and Facebook—and create a new tool to pursue bad online actors.

New language from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte would make it a crime to operate a facility such as a hotel or an internet platform with the intent to promote prostitution of another person. If adopted, this measure would expand an existing anti-prostitution statute but largely leave in place protections for internet platforms.

The revised bill, which was originally introduced by Republican Ann Wagner from Missouri, targets sites like Backpage.com over its alleged role in providing an advertising platform for teen prostitution. The site has used longstanding federal protections that shield web platforms from liability for content posted on their sites to defend itself against multiple lawsuits over its alleged role in the sex trafficking of children.

The amendment is also designed to clarify that the existing statute "never intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and contribute to the facilitation of sex trafficking." The bill also states that it shouldn't prevent attorneys general from bringing criminal cases under state laws.

Battle in Washington

The new proposal is the latest development in a battle in Washington over who is responsible for online content, posing yet another challenge for internet companies already under scrutiny over Russia's use of big tech platforms to try to influence the 2016 election.

A bill that cleared the Senate Commerce Committee would reduce internet companies' protection from liability for most of what their users post online. Backers say it would open a narrow route to pursuing bad actors. Some tech allies worry the measure goes too far and can harm the web's openness, even though it's won backing from Facebook and a key trade association.

Both chambers of Congress would need to agree on the same language before a bill could become law.

Proof of intent

Some tech association advocates favor the House bill's focus on requiring proof of intent to commit the crimes.

"The effort to focus on the specific intent to facilitate prostitution is a productive way of approaching the issue," Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman told a congressional subcommittee on Nov. 30. "I consider it to be superior to the alternatives I've seen," said Goldman, who has argued the Senate legislation would have hurt the internet.

The Senate bill, which was proposed by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, has the backing of a majority of senators, with co-sponsors from both parties, but Democratic Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon has put a hold on it, saying it "deeply troubled that this bill's approach will make it harder to catch dangerous criminals, that it will favor big tech companies at the expense of startups and that it will stifle innovation."

-- Bloomberg News

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