The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, with the support of several prominent Republican and Democratic senators. The act increases sites’ responsibility for user content, potentially expanding criminal liability for websites.
The bill proposes a significant amendment to Section 230 (1996) of the federal Communications Decency Act. This decades-old regulation functions as the internet’s liability shield providing websites with legal immunity for their users’ posts. For instance, a social platform like Facebook or Twitter cannot be held responsible for its users’ activity.
The bill’s stated goals let state law enforcement officials prosecute companies engaged in conduct that breaks federal sex trafficking laws. This is in addition to allowing victims of sex trafficking to seek compensation from websites that enabled their victimization and also criminalize any commercial conduct that enables a violation of federal sex trafficking laws.
In short, this legislation would make it easier for the federal and state governments to punish online service providers when criminals make use of their services.
Sex trafficking or prostituting of children are horrific crimes. Most people would abhor such practices and welcome such a step. This reprehensible practice and its perpetrators deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
But why are the tech companies against such a landmark legislation?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation refers to CDA 230 as “the most valuable tool for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet.” Without this protection, most of the web would no longer exist in its current form.
The most infamous misuse of this provision has been Backpage, the classifieds portal that hosted ads from sex traffickers on its adult services section. After a raid of its offices and the arrest of its CEO by the California Department of Justice in October 2016, the charges were dismissed citing CDA 230. However Backpage eventually shut down its adult services ads, citing overwhelming pressure from the government and public.
This proposed legislation may have some unintended consequences both for tech companies and the people. The proposed act can affect bloggers, news organizations and any platform that allows for public comments. If Facebook, Twitter or Google are held responsible for what users post, they would have to monitor our content and potentially even refuse to allow us to express ourselves or even remove our posts altogether. A new age of censorship.
The proposed law potentially implicates every online service that deals with user-generated content and could hit websites hard. It would directly impact the fundamental right to free speech. The tech industry and internet-rights advocates are rightly concerned about protections of free-speech platforms.
All this points to the need for the framework to evolve from its current form, but as the first step to tackling such a serious issue, it is a very much welcome one.