Congress passed a bill to combat online sex trafficking that has split the tech industry, bringing one of the first measures to weaken legal protection for websites closer to becoming law as Big Tech faces a mounting backlash in Washington.
The legislation, which seeks to ensure that websites can be held liable if they knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, cleared the Senate 97-2 Wednesday after passing the House on Feb. 27. It now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature. The White House has supported the measure, while calling for some changes.
Major tech companies face increasing pressure in Washington on issues including their size and Russia’s use of social media platforms to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook Inc. has come under fire for revelations that a political data firm that worked for Trump’s campaign retained information on millions of its users without their consent.
The legislation makes it a crime to operate a facility such as an internet platform with the intent to promote prostitution. It states that a 1996 law giving immunity to websites for content posted by third parties was never intended to protect “websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts.”
One of the first measures to chip away at the immunity, the bill is supported by Facebook and Internet Association trade group, which also counts Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. as members.
But other companies and trade associations have raised concern that the changes would harm innovation. Many tech advocates have said that operators of giant websites who were merely aware that bad actors used some corner of their platforms to sell children for sex could be accused of knowingly facilitating trafficking.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote that the bill would curtail free speech, harm start-up companies and risk making sex trafficking harder to find and prosecute. He also criticized big tech companies for the spread of online conspiracy theories and other controversial content.
“There was a time when the biggest internet companies had mottoes like, ‘Don’t be evil,'” said Wyden, referring to Google’s onetime slogan. “Perhaps it’s time for them to aspire to a more modest motto: ‘Don’t spread evil.'”
At the heart of many tech debates in Washington is the question of internet platforms’ moral and legal responsibility for the content posted by their users — a responsibility that many tech advocates worry lawmakers will now try to escalate.
“It’s going to open the door,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an organization that focuses on innovation and has criticized the legislation for potential harm to the internet economy. “If we’re going to hold these content platforms responsible for sex trafficking, why aren’t we holding them more responsible for intellectual property theft?”
Castro said making social media platforms liable for users’ misdeeds is like putting the “mayor in jail because there’s crime in the city.”
The yearlong effort to pass the bill, H.R. 1865, arose from trafficking victims’ fight against Backpage.com. The site invoked websites’ immunity as it defended itself against accusations of providing an advertising platform for teen prostitution.
Early on, Google sought to kill the bill because it curtailed the liability protections. Facebook initially stood with Google, but on Nov. 7, it relented in a post by Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Days later, the Internet Association also signed on to changes in a related Senate bill.
The moves enraged some in the tech world. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on civil liberties online, said Internet Association had endangered online activists and would gain “a massive competitive advantage” because the compromise would undermine upstarts.
Tech associations including the Consumer Technology Association and the Computer and Communications Industry Association also continued to warn against the efforts.
Meanwhile, content creators such as the Walt Disney Co. supported the bill, as did portions of the tech community that host little public-facing third-party content, such as Oracle Corp. and International Business Machine Corp. Both sectors often find themselves at odds with the large platforms.
The measure passed Wednesday may prove the beginning of several high-profile legal battles on the issue.
“I’m happy that the framework is being built,” said Annie McAdams, a Houston lawyer who has sued Backpage on behalf of victims. “I don’t think it’s enough to protect our children.”
McAdams said traffickers had often first contacted her clients through Facebook or its photo-sharing site Instagram, and often Backpage directed users back to her clients’ profiles on the social media platforms.
“We’re just getting started,” she said.
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