Want to sue Facebook for publishing illicit images of children? Politicians are about to make it much harder to do.

After pushing back for years, turning away from corporate responsibility, some of the biggest internet companies, including Facebook and Google, gave in to pressure by agreeing to support a specific sex trafficking law they opposed for months.

The bill allows victims to sue websites that knowingly support and assist sex trafficking on their site. State attorneys general would also be able to pursue legal action against websites that support sex trafficking content.

The companies argued that they had worked hard to combat sex trafficking on their services, but that the bill would jeopardize a free and open internet, as well as subject them to many potential lawsuits for the actions of users.

But companies have come under increasingly harsh scrutiny in recent weeks (and after our campaign at HeroesRising.net has been fighting them for years) particularly for their role helping to spread Russian generated fake stories during the 2016 presidential election. In just the past few days, executives at Facebook, Twitter and Google faced tough questions from lawmakers in three congressional hearings.

The new bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, became an unpopular lobbying battle for the tech companies. Some of their competitors, Walt Disney Company, 21st Century Fox, Oracle, and HP joined civil rights groups like National Urban League in support of the Senate bill.

Then, after weeks of negotiating over the details, an internet lobbying group announced it had ended its battle to kill the new law.

The law “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,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association.

Congressional aides said the internet companies had been invited to participate in the formation of the bill before it was introduced in August, but they declined. After that, the companies opposed the bill in force, warning that it would expose web companies to numerous lawsuits because the actions of users were too difficult to police.

Elected officials said the new bill contains modest changes making it clear that state law enforcement officials would have to use federal law as their basis of suits, one of the final sticking points for the companies. A newer  version of the law also contains language specifying that only websites that knowingly assist and support sex trafficking would be targeted – a terrible change to the law, nearly making it unenforceable.

Yet, lawmakers are still bragging, “This important bill will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, who was a co-author of the bill with Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

The bill amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, established in 1996, that protects online companies from liability over content they hosted on their sites. Companies say that law has allowed internet services like Google and Facebook to thrive.

But with broad support, legislators said some smaller companies like, Backpage’s “Escort” section, had hidden behind Section 230. “Removing the unwarranted shield from legal responsibility will save countless children from horrific tragedy, both physical and emotional,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

While Facebook and Google have enormous amounts of sex trafficking activity on their sites, politicians depend on them all to communicate with constituents and donors.

The good news is that consumer advocates said that the law put the big companies on notice as well. “This is a chink in the Teflon of Google and Facebook’s shield of immunity,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

As reported in The New York Times.


Raymond Bechard

Raymond Bechard is an Author, Producer and Human Rights Advocate. For over 25 years he has worked to provide justice, tolerance and equality to people around the world.

View All Posts