A proposed law that could subject web publishers to new legal threats cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
But shortly after the bill passed out of committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) placed a hold on the measure. "I continue to be deeply troubled that this bill's approach will make it harder to catch dangerous criminals, that it will favor big tech companies at the expense of startups and that it will stifle innovation," Wyden stated.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (S. 1693) would impose liability on websites that knowingly facilitate violations of federal sex-trafficking laws. The bill would also 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.
The measure is aimed at curbing prostitution ads on Backpage.com, but some opponents say the bill could backfire by encouarging publishers to ignore problematic content, in order to avoid knowing about material that may violate the law.
"Online services will be reluctant to undertake content moderation efforts if they face liability for any sex trafficking promotions that slip through, i.e., if they miss a promotion, review a promotion but make a mistake, or take too long to find or remove a promotion," Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman told the Senate this week.
Critics also say the measure could push sites in the other direction, encouraging them to take down a broad array of content in order to minimize the risk of liability. The bill "would create an incredibly strong incentive for intermediaries to err on the side of caution and take down any speech that is flagged to them as potentially relating to trafficking," The Center for Democracy & Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, New America’s Open Technology Institute and nine other organizations say in a letter sent to the Senate this week.
But the Internet Association, which originally opposed the bill, said last week that it now supports the measure. The organization represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay and other tech companies.
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 classifieds site has previously 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.