In reversal, U.S. internet firms back bill to fight online sex trafficking

Major U.S. internet firms on Friday said they would support legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, marking a sharp reversal for Silicon Valley on an issue long considered a top policy priority.

The decision to endorse a measure advancing in the U.S. Senate could clear the way for Congress to pass the first rewrite of a law adopted 21 years ago that is widely considered a bedrock legal shield for the internet industry.

Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, said in a statement it supported a bipartisan proposal advancing in the U.S. Senate making it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

“Important changes made to (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) will grant victims the ability to secure the justice they deserve, allow internet platforms to continue their work combating human trafficking, and protect good actors in the ecosystem”, Beckerman said. His organization represents tech companies including Facebook (FB.O), Amazon (AMZN.O) and Alphabet’s Google (GOOGL.O).

This week, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee said it would vote next week on the bill authored by Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

The internet industry has fought such a change in the law for years, but now Washington is stepping up scrutiny on the sector on a range of policy issues after decades of hands-off regulation.

U.S. technology companies had long opposed any legislation seeking to amend Section 230 of the decades-old Communications Decency Act, arguing it is a bedrock legal protection for the internet that could thwart digital innovation and prompt endless litigation.

Bill negotiators agreed to make a handful of technical changes to the draft legislation, which Beckerman said helped earn support of the internet companies.

Those changes include clarity that criminal charges are based on violations of federal human trafficking law and that a standard for liability requires a website “knowingly” assisting of facilitating trafficking.

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