The Senate voted Wednesday to approve an anti-sex-trafficking bill that would allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against online platforms that knowingly facilitate the act, a move that prosecutors, victims and anti-trafficking activists are heralding as an essential step in cracking down on the crime.
But others, such as tech advocacy groups, fear the limitations it could place on free speech on the internet.
The bill passed 97-2, and now goes to the White House for President Donald Trump’s signature. The White House has expressed support for the proposal.
The bipartisan measure, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, would create an exception to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow victims of sex trafficking to sue websites that enabled their abuse. The House version passed with an overwhelming majority from both parties by 388-25 and later received an endorsement from the White House.
“The bill really moves the ball forward on an area with strong Republican and Democratic consensus at a time of horrible partisan rancor,” Mark P. Lagon, the former US ambassador-at-large to combat and monitor trafficking in persons, told CNN.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell discussed the bill Tuesday, saying laws passed in the 1990s have not kept up with the changing technology.
The legislation is “designed to close a loophole in existing law that allows websites to avoid responsibility even as they knowingly facilitate trafficking. It would ensure any institutions that are party to this reprehensible practice are subject to the strict penalties they deserve,” said the Kentucky Republican. “I urge each of my colleagues to join us in taking decisive action for our nation’s children.”
Measuring the problem
In an 18-month investigation conducted by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, part of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and the committee’s top Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, reported finding that Backpage.com was knowingly selling people online.
“They didn’t remove the post because they didn’t want to lose the revenue,” Portman said on the Senate floor. “And you can imagine, this is a very lucrative business.”
Under current federal law, websites cannot be held responsible for content published by third parties on their sites. That stipulation provided a jump-start that has allowed former startups like Facebook, Google and Twitter to thrive. However, the repercussions of that freedom have edged to the forefront, as sites like Facebook are facing a backlash for roles they might have unintentionally played in election meddling.
“We are now seeing the downsides of a lack of regulation that doesn’t exist in any other field. You’re seeing it with foreign powers meddling in our election, and you’re seeing it with children being raped day in a