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Consumer Watchdog Praises Apparent Agreement in Congress on Bill to Amend Internet Law to Stop Sex Trafficking

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 00:51

Rogue Websites Like Backpage Could Be Held Accountable for Abuses

SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog today praised an apparent agreement that would combine language from U.S. Senate and House bills that would allow rogue websites like Backpage to be held accountable for enabling child sex trafficking.

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) H.R 1865, sponsored by Rep. Anne Wagner (R-MO) will be amended to include language from the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, S. 1693, sponsored in the Senate by Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).  The amended House bill is expected to come to a vote next week. It has 174 co-sponsors.

“It looks like rogue websites like Backpage may finally be held accountable for their abuses,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “What’s disheartening is how tech industry giants like Google and Facebook resisted the clearly necessary reform of CDA Sec. 230 for so long.”

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been interpreted by the courts to mean that websites are not liable for what is posted on them by third parties. The amended House bill, FOSTA, would allow websites like the notorious to be held accountable for facilitating sex trafficking.  The Senate bill, SESTA, has 67 sponsors

Google and Facebook initially led the opposition to amend CDA Sec. 230, claiming the Act promotes and protects free expression on the Internet, but a U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations staff report shows that sites like aid and abet under-age sex traffickers enabled by the blanket protection of the Act. By one count 73% of child trafficking reports in the United States involve

Facebook and Google finally dropped their opposition to SESTA as the Senate Commerce Committee.

“Internet freedom must not come at the expense of children who are sex trafficked or hidden manipulation of public debate,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director. “Just as the First Amendment does not allow you to shout fire in a crowded movie house, or to assist hit men and drug dealers in their criminal activity, CDA Section 230 cannot continue to allow Internet oligarchs like Facebook and Google shirk their social responsibility so they can fatten their bottom lines.”

The amendment that includes the SESTA language in the House bill comes from Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA).

A spokesperson for Rep. Wagner gave this background on the amended House bill:

“In recent years, sex trafficking has moved from the streets to the internet. But law enforcement and victims can’t hold the websites that sell our children accountable. H.R. 1865 would give federal, state, and local prosecutors the tools they need to hold websites accountable for supporting the sale of sex trafficking victims. It would allow prosecutors to use both state sex trafficking laws and promotion of prostitution laws to prosecute websites that sell victims of trafficking, in addition to providing a new federal crime that is specifically tailored to how bad actor websites are engaging in the online sex trade. 

“The Walters Amendment, endorsed by Congresswoman Ann Wagner, reinstates critical, pro-victim sections of the original bill, including provisions from S. 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The Amendment would clarify that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not impair or limit victims of sex trafficking from using their private right of action against the websites that sell them; amend the federal sex trafficking statute to define 'participation in a venture' in response to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit’s 2016 decision in Jane Doe vs., LLC; and allow State Attorneys General to bring civil actions on behalf of sex trafficking victims.”

Backpage’s abuses and the victim-led fight to hold it accountable are the subject of the documentary film, I am Jane Doe, (  which is now available on Netflix or can be downloaded from Google Play, iTunes or Amazon. 

“Watch the film,” Simpson said. “You’ll clearly understand the abuses that blind defense of Sec. 230 enables.”

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