Commentary

Bill Aimed At Backpage Could Curb User-Generated Content, Groups Warn

A broad array of digital rights groups are gearing up to fight a Senate bill that could weaken current protections for Web platforms.

The bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, introduced this week by Sen. Portan (R-Ohio), is aimed at curbing sex trafficking ads on sites like Backpage.com. But opponents say the measure could have disastrous consequences for many other websites.

"Don’t let its name fool you," says the civil rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, adding that the bill would expose sites hosting user-created content "to the risk of overwhelming criminal and civil liability if sex traffickers use their services."

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"For small Internet businesses, that could be fatal: with the possibility of devastating litigation costs hanging over their heads, we think that many entrepreneurs and investors will be deterred from building new businesses online," the EFF says.

The proposed law would make it a crime to knowingly assist or facilitate violations of federal or state laws prohibiting the sex trafficking of children, as well as sex trafficking by force or coercion. The measure also would allow victims to pursue civil lawsuits against websites that "knowingly or recklessly" facilitated victimization.

Backpage itself has faced numerous legal threats over its controversial escort ads -- which often were obvious prostitution ads. So far, the company has largely prevailed in court, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. That law broadly protects online platforms from liability for illegal activity by users. Section 230 law has some exceptions, including one that applies when users commit federal crimes. Portman's bill would broaden that exception to include state crimes related to sex trafficking.

The EFF, like other opponents of Portman's proposal, argues that weakening current protections for online service providers would make it difficult -- and in some cases practically impossible -- for them to continue offering platforms for user-generated content.

"One of the benefits of safe harbors is that they allow intermediaries to enter the market with very limited resources," the EFF writes. "Facebook, Snapchat, Airbnb, and countless other popular online services began as tiny two- or three-person companies. Without the protections in Section 230, a single lawsuit over the actions of one of its users could have destroyed one of those companies in its early stages."

The Silicon Valley trade group Internet Association, which warned against the measure earlier this week, says it ""jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open internet."

A coalition of think tanks including TechFreedom and New America’s Open Technology Institute also weighed in against the bill. Among other arguments, they say the bill could lead platforms to "over-filter" user content, or even prohibit it entirely, in order to avoid the "insurmountable costs of monitoring every user’s comments."

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