By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. – On September 19, 2017 the Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony from victims’ families urging law makers to approve the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). The bill has bipartisan support as it was promoted by both Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).
Human trafficking survivors and their advocates have been pushing Congress to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) for years. Courts around the country have been interpreting the act to afford immunity to individuals and companies who knowingly work with sex traffickers to create advertisements for the sale of women and children into sex trafficking.
The CDA was passed by Congress in 1996 to help families shield children form sexually explicit material. At the time, Congress also wanted the Internet to be successful. Taking both of these goals into account, Congress designed the CDA “to protect companies when they merely hosted content from third parties and when they chose in good faith to regulate explicit material on their sites — not when they knowingly engaged in clearly illegal activity.”
Today, individuals and companies utilized the immunity law of the CDA. California Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown stated, “until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.” One webpage it applies to is Backpage.com which is the website where most American victims of sex trafficking are sold.
Backpage is involved in 73% of cases of suspected child trafficking in America. Although this is a large percentage, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently dismissed three sex trafficking cases. The court ruled that the CDA’s immunity provision precluded the litigation even if they knowingly collaborated with sex traffickers to sell children. The court suggested that the victims seek legislative change to stop this issue.
Despite not taking ads from Backpage, Google “has emerged as its behind-the-scenes champion.” Google is concerned that closing the loophole created by the CDA would allow for frivolous lawsuits and investigations that will damage its’ interests and the freedom of the Internet. Senator Portman says they have nothing to fear.
Senator Portman said, “They have to be proven to have knowingly facilitated, supported or assisted in online sex trafficking to be liable in the first place.” The Senator further declared, “Because the standard is so high, our bill protects good tech actors and targets rogue online actors like Backpage.”
While none of the members of the Commerce Committee have come out against the bill, some have indicated that they are open to revising it in order to address the concerns of the tech industry. It remains to be seen how the bill may be revised to address these concerns and effectively close the CDA loophole.
For more information, please see:
The Hill – Senators Hear Emotional Testimony on Controversial Sex-Trafficking Bill – 19 September 2017
Huff Post – Who Will Win in Congress – Trafficking Victims or Special Interests? – 19 September 2017
Washington Post – Mother of Slain Teen Makes Tearful Plea for Congress to Amend Internet Law – 19 September 2017
New York Times – Google and Sex Traffickers Like Backpage.com – 7 September 2017