Internet Association Changes Course, Endorses Anti-Backpage Bill

In a reversal, a trade group representing Silicon Valley said Friday that it now supports a proposed law aimed at curbing online prostitution ads.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, a bill introduced in August by Sen. Portman (R-Ohio) and amended on Friday, would impose liability on websites that knowingly facilitate violations of federal sex-trafficking laws. The bill would allow sex-trafficking victims to pursue civil lawsuits against some websites that ran prostitution ads, and would enable state officials to prosecute businesses that violate federal sex-trafficking laws.

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Before Friday's amendments, the proposed measure would have allowed state officials to prosecute businesses that violated state as well as federal sex-trafficking laws. The amendments also state that sites are only liable if they are "knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating" sex trafficking; the original version of the bill said that sites could be liable for "knowing conduct" that assists, supports, or facilitates trafficking.

The Internet Association, which previously lobbied against the bill, says it supports the compromise unveiled Friday. "Important changes made to SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) will grant victims the ability to secure the justice they deserve, allow internet platforms to continue their work combating human trafficking, and protect good actors in the ecosystem," Internet Association President & CEO Michael Beckerman said in a statement. The group represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay and other tech companies.

The bill also picked up the support of Sens. Kamala Harris (D-California), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) on Friday.

Backpage has previously fought off state laws, and has defeated several lawsuits by sex-trafficking victims. The classifieds company argued in those matters that the federal Communications Decency Act protects sites from liability for illegal ads posted by users.

In January, Backpage shuttered its "adult" ads section, which observers said mainly contained prostitution ads. But since then, many of those ads appear to have migrated to other sections of the site. The lawmakers who unveiled the measure referred specifically to Backpage, stating this summer: "For too long, courts around the country have ruled that websites like Backpage.com can continue to facilitate illegal sex trafficking online with no repercussions."

Opponents of the proposed statute, including Internet law expert Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University, say it may not help victims. In September, Goldman testified to a Senate committee that the law will "counterproductively lead to more socially harmful content and more online sex trafficking promotions."

He argued that the bill could discourage sites from moderating user-posted content, in order to avoid knowledge of illegal activity. The result, he predicts, will be "more socially harmful content online."

Friday, Goldman tweeted about the revised bill: "Still bad, but slightly less bad."

Lawmakers are expected to mark up the bill next week.

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