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An anti-sex trafficking bill that Silicon Valley hates could see a hearing in the U.S. Senate next week

Tech wants to address the problem -- but it doesn’t want to face new lawsuits.

Senator Rob Portman is surrounded by reporters.
Sen. Rob Portman
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

An anti-sex trafficking bill that has drawn sharp opposition from Silicon Valley could inch ahead in the U.S. Senate next week.

The measure at issue is the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, an effort by Sen. Rob Portman and 26 other lawmakers to open up new legal avenues for state prosecutors and victims to seek penalties against social networks, review websites, online advertisers and others that don’t do enough to combat users who post exploitative content.

Despite the tech industry’s aversion to any new legal liability, Portman and his allies in both parties are itching to bring their bill to the Senate floor — and that process could kick off with a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Sept. 19, according to multiple sources familiar with the panel’s plans. A notice announcing the hearing, obtained by Recode, was circulated Tuesday.

A spokesman for Portman did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment. Nor did Sen. John Thune, the Republican leader of the Commerce Committee.

To be clear, tech giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google seek to stop sex trafficking. But those companies — speaking through their primary Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, the Internet Association — have vigorously opposed Portman’s bill because it targets Silicon Valley’s prized legal shield, a portion of law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Since the 1990s, Section 230 has spared internet platforms from being held liable for content posted by their users. There are exceptions — web companies aren’t immune from federal criminal law, for example, and Congress in recent years has made advertising sex online a criminal act.

But Portman and others believe that isn’t enough and they want a broader universe of players — including potentially web hosting companies and search engines — to be subject to new penalties if they play a role in facilitating online sex trafficking.

Beyond the tech industry, its allies in the public-interest community — including the Electronic Frontier Foundation — also have opposed the bill. In recent weeks, EFF has argued that the U.S. government already has the legal tools to pursue the worst actors, including, a website that Portman and crew have investigated as a hub for child sex exploitation.

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