Senate Crackdown on Online Sex Trafficking Hits Opposition

In federal and state investigations, Backpage has successfully cited as a defense Section 230 of the decency act, which says that websites cannot “be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

If passed, the Portman bill would clarify that Section 230 cannot shield a website from federal trafficking laws. It would also impose liability for knowingly assisting and facilitating online sex trafficking, and allow civil suits related to sex trafficking.

Backpage.com officials did not respond to requests for comment. The website announced in January that it had formally closed its adult section after the Senate investigation found that employers “knowingly facilitated the criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls,” but trafficking advertisements have been reported in the website’s dating section.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which praised the bill in a letter to senators this week, reported that 73 percent of reported sex trafficking was traced through advertisements on websites like Backpage.

However, some lawyers and members of the technology community say that while they support the policing of websites that knowingly encourage sex trafficking, the broad language of the bill opens other online entities to new legal challenges. With the potential for lawsuits, there is concern that websites would begin to actively and pre-emptively delete and police users’ posts and videos.

A similar bill introduced in the House in April, which would not only modify the decency act but create harsher penalties for providers found to have had knowledge of sex trafficking, has been criticized for being even broader than the Senate bill.

“It would be good for the drafters of the bill to engage seriously with the nontrivial objections that are meant to support freedom of expression online, and it’s not freedom of expression to sex traffic,” said Jonathan L. Zittrain, a professor of internet law at Harvard, emphasizing that critics were not arguing against prosecuting websites like Backpage.

“They are worried about sites that don’t resemble Backpage at all running into trouble if the immunity is lifted,” he said. Like many other critics of the bill, Mr. Zittrain said he would prefer narrower language or the chance to prosecute websites under current legislation, including the Stop Advertising Victims of…

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