Previously, I’ve posted about how tech giants like Google opposed amending the Communications Decency Act of 1996. After the drubbing Google and Facebook took during last week’s Senate hearing about the Russian political ads debacle, they now have seemed to thrown their support behind the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. This is the bill that would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that has allowed sites like Backpage to avoid prosecution for their role in the sex trafficking of women and children.
Previously, tech giants like Google had opposed the bill fearing it would open them to potential lawsuits even though the amendment to the CDA specifically targets sites that bad-actor websites. Now, The Internet Association, which represents such tech luminaries as Google, Facebook and Twitter, has reversed their opposition to the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
While it may not have been done out of the goodness of their hearts, but more to try to get Congress off their backs, this is still an important step towards the bill becoming law. Without as many allies, Backpage’s support is now crumbling. We are now several steps closer to seeing protections enabled to prevent girls and women from being trafficked on sites like Backpage and hopefully the successful prosecution of those who have profited way too long from their victims’ suffering.
Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, is one of the few nationally known journalists who has continually reported on the transgressions of Backpage when it comes to Backpage’s part in the sex trade. In one of his recent columns, Kristoff goes after an even bigger fish in the polluted waters of internet sex trafficking, Google. Google opposes the proposed amendments to the Communications Decency Act that would remove the protections from prosecution that sites like Backpage have been hiding behind, otherwise known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
Kristoff claims that Google has an unfounded fear when it comes to their argument of a slippery slope with Google claiming the new amendment to the CDA could open them up to frivolous lawsuits. However, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing and Exploited children points out the new legislation is crafted in such a way that it only applies to those sites which are directly receiving money from traffickers.
“This bill only impacts bad-actor websites,” notes Yiota Souras, general counsel at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “You don’t inadvertently traffic a child.”
Yet the majority of Silicon Valley is opposing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act mostly out of fear that it will somehow affect their right to free speech, which couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no slippery slope here. There is no downside. I think what the mostly insular tech community forgets is the victims being bought and sold into sexual slavery on sites like Backpage are real flesh and blood people and not just nameless pixels on a display screen.
Instead of worrying about Backpage’s ‘freedom of speech’ these tech companies should be more worried about the fact that many of the women and girls being trafficked on Backpage have no freedom at all in a country that prides itself on liberty.
A week ago today (because I’m current like that), the Senate submitted a bill that would add an amendment to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that would specifically remove the protection Backpage has hidden behind so they could continue to facilitate the trafficking of women and children in their ads. The bill, sponsored by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, is called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 and would essentially leave the CDA intact as it is except for websites who knowingly engage in sex trafficking. As a side note, I’m surprised the proposed act doesn’t have a clever acronym. Congress really loves their acronyms, but I digress. In the Senate’s own investigations, they believe Backpage knowingly edited ads sent to them in order to avoid further scrutiny by law enforcement and the government.
This couldn’t come soon enough as the victims of sex trafficking have been blocked multiple times from seeking justice against Backpage by the outdated CDA. The Communications Decency Act is 21 years old. If the CDA were a person, it would be old enough to drink. The CDA was passed during a time when most of us weren’t even on the internet and the only way you could access it was over a dial-up connection on an expensive PC. Since that time, the internet has grown exponentially and the technology used to access it has vastly exceeded any expectations we had of it in 1996. Yet the CDA has largely remained the same, failing to advance along with the times.
Those who think this new amendment may restrict free speech on the internet couldn’t be further from the truth. The new bill has language in it which specifically targets sex trafficking sites. According to the Washington Post…
The proposed law would clarify that Section 230 [of the CDA] does not preclude prosecution of state or federal criminal laws dealing with sex trafficking of children; does not prohibit civil suits related to sex trafficking; and ensures federal liability for publishing information designed to facilitate sex trafficking.
So yes, we can have a free and open internet where the rights of trafficking victims are recognized and their facilitators are punished.
Backpage’s legal weasel mouthpiece, Liz McDougall, has declined to comment on the bill. You know they’re scared when she’s got nothing to say.
In a piece published by the Washington Post, Law Professor and former director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, Mary Leary, argues that Congress hasn’t done enough to stop the sexual trafficking of children by sites like Backpage. One of the main culprits she feels is preventing this is the Communications Decency Act of 1996, or CDA for short. Basically, the CDA grants websites like Backpage immunity from the things that its users post, like ads for children being prostituted. Backpage has been able to fend off several lawsuits claiming that the CDA protects them. For years I’ve been saying that the CDA is archaic since it’s been more than 20 years since the act was instituted. Considering those were the days of dial-up internet on AOL, it’s a joke that the act hasn’t been routinely updated to keep up with current internet trends. Ms. Leary seems to agree…
These companies have been sued by surviving victims throughout the country for facilitating their sex trafficking, and, with one exception, these companies have been able to hide behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and claim immunity for their actions by claiming that it grants them protection from prosecution for the transactions that they facilitate.
When Congress drafted Section 230 of the CDA in 1996, we lived in a different world: The Internet was still in its infancy, and online commerce had yet to become a major force in American life. Yet as the Internet has developed and the “dark web” has emerged, Congress has failed to amend this provision to respond to these new challenges. As a result, 47 state attorneys general have written Congress to demand the CDA be amended to prevent this. Law enforcement, child advocates, local politicians and victims themselves have begged Congress to make this important change and close down the largest marketplace for the sale of children in the world.
Ms. Leary continues that without amending the CDA, sites like Backpage will continue to pop up no matter how many are shut down. If the CDA is amended to reflect current times it could cut the head off of the proverbial beast, and sites like Backpage would no longer be able to rake in millions off the suffering of woman and children who are peddled on their pages by pimps and traffickers.