January 16, 2018

Momentum for the Senate’s Fight Against Child Sex Trafficking

Owen Taylor

On January 3, five more Senators joined in the cosponsoring of the ‘Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017’ (SESTA), making the bill filibuster-proof in the Senate. Five more have since signed on, bringing the tally to date to 65.

SESTA was unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on November 8. The bill aims at modifying section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, to make liable for persecution any website that knowingly engages in online child sex trafficking.

Bipartisan authors of the bill, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) issued a joint statement urging the Senate to vote “as quickly as possible,” noting the White House’s presidential proclamation of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Background

Years prior to authoring SESTA, as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Senator Portman investigated Backpage.com for its suspected role in knowingly facilitating online child sex trafficking. When the website refused to testify before the subcommittee, Chairman Portman and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-MO) held Backpage in contempt of Congress, gaining access to over a million documents that evidenced the website’s even more complicit role than the committee had initially suspected. Before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in September, Senator Portman characterized the website’s enablement of such trafficking as “ruthlessly efficient.” Victims of sex trafficking had repeatedly filed lawsuits against Backpage to no avail; courts around the country ruled in favor of Backpage’s broad immunity, citing federal protection under the CDA of 1996. While nothing in the CDA’s original text supports all-encompassing immunity for websites knowingly engaged in sex trafficking, Portman argues that its outdated text has been effective in protecting bad actors.

Opposition

Although widely considered well-intentioned legislation, the bill was initially met with pushback from the tech world, who feared potentially inadvertent Trojan horse-like consequences. It was suggested that tampering with Section 230 would open the door to overwhelming liability for failure to police the vast amounts of content on their platforms. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) also led opposition in the Senate, arguing that no language in the Section 230 statute protects guilty individuals from the full force of the law.

Changes to SESTA

Many in the tech world believed the bill’s definition of the phrase “participation in a venture”—meaning breaking sex trafficking laws—could be interpreted broadly when scrutinizing a website’s actions. Months of negotiations lead to a compromise, clarifying the definition of “participation” to mean websites that knowingly assist, support, or facilitate in a violation of sex trafficking laws. The Internet Association issued a statement of support for SESTA once the tweaks were made.

Future

While Backpage.com was the impetus for discussion around the legislation, SESTA’s broader goal is to simultaneously thwart other emerging websites that facilitate sex trafficking, without, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) described, “taking a sledge hammer to the internet.” With sufficient support to withstand procedural hurdles, and opposition largely diffused, it’s likely that SESTA will clear the chamber by the end of the month.


Owen Taylor

Owen Taylor is a Client Executive with Prime Policy Group and a member of the firm’s research team. He assists a number of lobbyists working in various practice areas by performing in-depth research and monitoring of legislative issues relevant to client interests.