A proposed law aimed at curbing online sex trafficking has picked up some support in Congress, but is also drawing heated opposition from Silicon Valley.
The bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, introduced last week by Sen. Portman (R-Ohio), is aimed at ads on Backpage.com, infamous for its prostitution ads.
The bill would allow sex-trafficking victims to pursue civil lawsuits against websites that "knowingly or recklessly" facilitated victimization. The proposed measure also 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 proposal now has 27 co-sponsors in the Senate, up from 24 when introduced. But a growing chorus of tech companies are warning that the bill's consequences could extend far beyond Backpage.com.
The most recent opposition comes from Engine Advocacy, which advocates for tech startups. That group, along with the Copia Institute, spearheaded a letter to lawmakers outlining problems with the proposed bill.
"While we are not experts in human trafficking, we are experts in the internet and how previous attempts to fight illegal activity online have and have not worked," reads the letter, which was signed by more than 30 companies including Automattic (which owns blogging service Word Press), Kickstarter, Meetup, Medium and Reddit.
"We greatly fear that the approach being proposed ... will be tremendously counterproductive to the stated goal of stopping human trafficking," the letter states.
The companies argue that passing the bill would discourage online companies from working with the police. That's because the proposed law exposes companies to liability if they know their platforms are being used for sex trafficking -- even when they're only aware of illegal activity because they're trying to prevent it.
The proposed bill "will create the incentive for providers not to look for evidence of trafficking and not to proactively moderate and filter such evidence, as any such action could implicate them in both civil and criminal lawsuits," the letter states.
Backpage has already faced numerous legal threats over its "escort" ads -- often obvious prostitution ads. So far, the company has successfully argued in numerous cases that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act protects it from liability. That law broadly immunizes online platforms for illegal activity by users.
The tech companies signing Engine's letter point out that Section 230 already has an exception that could apply to violations of federal laws.
"Under Section 230 as it currently stands, there is no immunity for federal crimes -- and the Justice Department has every right and ability to investigate and pursue anyone who is violating federal trafficking statutes," they write. "There is nothing under the law as it stands today that is blocking the Justice Department from pursuing action if such crimes are being committed by technology and internet platforms."