Senate Commerce OKs Bill Targeting Online Sex Trafficking

Amendment version had drawn support of social media sites concerned about impact

The Senate Commerce Committee has unanimously approved the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, referring it to the full Senate for a vote after an amendment was hammered out that was supported by legislators and the computer industry.

The bipartisan bill, which was introduced last month, would update the Communications Decency Act to clarify that Section 230, which says internet services cannot be held liable for the actions of third parties, does not prevent enforcement against providers and users of federal and state laws against sex trafficking.

The bill was changed to address concerns raised in markup. The amendment was the result of a deal struck among Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman and ranking members of the Commerce Committee, respectively, along with Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

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The change made the bill acceptable to the Internet Association, basically the trade group for edge providers including Facebook and Google and Twitter.

 The bill was amended to:

 1) "Make clear that all criminal charges are based on a violation of the federal human trafficking law so that there is a uniform standard.

 2) "Clarify the definition of 'participating in a venture' and ensure the standard for liability remains 'knowingly' for websites that are assisting, supporting, or facilitating sex trafficking.

 3) Permit state attorneys general to bring a civil action against those who violate the federal human trafficking law on behalf of a state’s residents in federal court."

Edge providers were concerned that an overly broad definition of "knowingly" could threaten the self-posting model for essentially the entire social media ecosphere if it meant sites were liable for literally an aggregate billions of posts.

“Thanks to the tireless work of advocates, survivors, and a diligent bipartisan coalition of my colleagues, we have taken a critical step forward today in our fight to end online sex trafficking,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of the bill's drafters. “Momentum is building for our bipartisan bill, due in large part to the growing chorus of voices – including key figures in the technology sector – calling for an end to the shameful, shocking practice of selling children for sex. As we continue our fight for passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, I am buoyed by the steadfast support from diverse stakeholders committed to giving victims of sex trafficking their day in court, and bringing online sex traffickers to justice.”

“With today’s unanimous vote of the Senate Commerce Committee, Congress is one step closer to passing the most important anti-trafficking legislation in nearly twenty years, said Lisa Thompson, VP of research and education for the the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “There is no change to federal law more urgent and necessary to fighting sex trafficking than a strong, but narrowly crafted, amendment to the Communications Decency Act.”

It was in everyone's interest to come up with a workable bill that could get unanimous support since noone wanted to be on the record as opposing legislation whose aim was to stop the sex trafficking of children.