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Tech companies fear repercussions from a new bill in the U.S. Congress to combat human trafficking

Amazon, Facebook and Google fear they’d face more legal liability for what their users post.

Senators Debate Health Care Bill On Capitol Hill
Ohio Senator Rob Portman
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google are about to go to war with the U.S. Congress over the most unlikely of causes: Human trafficking.

A new bill by Republican Sen. Rob Portman — backed by 19 other lawmakers from both parties — would open the door for state attorneys general and victims alike to take legal action against social networks, review websites, advertisers and others that don’t do enough to combat users who post exploitative content.

But the proposal is already drawing opposition from Silicon Valley, where tech companies want to put an end to human trafficking — but don’t want to do so in a way that also subjects them to new lawsuits.

The fight centers on a website for classified ads called Backpage, which investigators — in Congress and elsewhere — long have alleged is a haven for illegal prostitution and underage exploitation.

For years, though, Backpage has dodged significant scrutiny with the help of a portion of federal law that generally spares website owners from being held liable for the third-party content posted by their users. The legal shield is known as Section 230, and it’s part of the Communications Decency Act. And for many in Silicon Valley, it’s something of a holy grail: They claim the 1996-era rules allowed the internet to evolve without fear of lawsuits.

To that end, Portman and his allies want to weaken that shield just a little bit, ensuring “that websites that facilitate sex trafficking can be held liable and that victims can get justice,” they said in a statement. Their proposal would give state attorneys general new power to prosecute offenders, while allowing victims to sue those websites — and potentially others, like the ad networks that support them.

Reacting to the bill Tuesday, the Internet Association — a group that represents companies like Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter — for the first time said the Justice Department should prosecute Backpage and other “rogue operators” “to the fullest extent of the law.” The DOJ has never opened such a probe, despite lawmakers’ repeated requests.

Still, the Washington, D.C.-based tech lobbying group slammed the bill by Portman and others as “overly broad and counterproductive in the fight to combat human trafficking.” For one thing, the Internet Association said the measure would inadvertently “create a new wave of frivolous and unpredictable actions against legitimate companies rather than addressing underlying criminal behavior.”

“Furthermore, it will impose new, substantial liability risks for companies that take proactive measures to prevent trafficking online, hampering the ability of websites to fight illegal activity,” Beckerman continued in a statement. “The bill also jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open internet, with serious economic and speech implications well beyond its intended scope.”

For now, Backpage already has shut down the adult section of its website. It took that step ahead of a contentious Senate hearing earlier this year, convened by Portman and his committee’s top Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had been investigating it since 2015.

Entering the hearing, lawmakers charged that Backpage actually had lost its legal privileges under Section 230 because it specifically helped promote sex-related ads on its classifieds site, a fact confirmed by the Washington Post in its own investigation. Backpage repeatedly has denied the charges, and the company could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, opted in January against taking a case related to Backpage. Victims in Massachusetts — who said they were as young as 15 years old when they were advertised as prostitutes on the website — had appealed to the nation’s justices after a lower court ruled in the website’s favor, citing Section 230 and its shield from liability.

To be sure, the federal government already has tools at its disposal to prosecute websites that knowingly advertise or facilitate human trafficking. But Portman and McCaskill want to stiffen the penalties, and in their aim, they’ve recruited a deep bench of powerful Senate allies from both parties, including Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Bill Nelson, and GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain.

Their effort also has support outside of the U.S. Capitol from the likes of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The group wrote in a letter to lawmakers sent Tuesday that the measure would help civil attorneys and state attorneys general “assist victims in holding responsible everyone who participated in their trafficking.”

Previously, though, tech giants have fought vigorously against any attempt to weaken Section 230.

A slew of cities and states that sought to regulate listings on Airbnb, for example, met fierce resistance from the home-sharing company and its internet counterparts, which brandished the law in resulting court fights. Others, like Facebook, have held up the provisions amid accusations that their websites helped facilitate terrorism — and courts generally have agreed.

Much as with human trafficking, tech companies mounted similar arguments in those fights: They wanted to address regulators’ concerns, from deleting illegal or predatory housing ads to combating online extremism. But they didn’t want to do it at the expense of a law that has shielded them from lawsuits and other forms of legal liability.

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