House Passes Bill Limiting Websites’ Immunity in Sex-Trafficking Cases

Feb 27, 2018
In The News

WASHINGTON—The House Tuesday passed far-reaching legislation that aims to curb online sex trafficking by holding websites more accountable for their users’ activities, a rare political defeat for internet companies.

The final vote on the bill was 388 to 25, with strong support among both Republicans and Democrats. The legislation is also expected to pass the Senate by a wide margin, although that vote could be delayed by lawmakers allied with the tech industry.

Supporters argued that the legislation is necessary to combat a growing epidemic of sex trafficking online that often involves children. Their success in overcoming longstanding tech industry concerns underscored an erosion of influence that Silicon Valley has experienced in recent months in Washington, amid scandals over Russian election meddling and worries about the companies’ power.

The bill would give sex-trafficking victims a stronger chance of winning civil lawsuits against websites by limiting the broad federal immunity online businesses now enjoy for actions of their users. The immunity law was adopted in the 1990s as a way to nurture the fledgling internet. Trafficking lawsuits against online businesses have usually been tossed out of court because of the immunity.

Congressional opponents of the new legislation, including allies of tech companies, warned Tuesday that the bill goes too far and could endanger free speech, in addition to exposing the industry to potentially costly lawsuits by trafficking victims. Tech firms worry the change eventually could lead to further erosion of the 1990s immunity law, widely regarded as one of the internet’s legal pillars.

Further wrangling is likely over a couple of narrower issues, including whether one provision of the bill improperly puts websites on the hook for actions they took before the law was changed. A letter from the Justice Department said that the provision “raises a serious constitutional concern.”

But opposition among House lawmakers on Tuesday was only scattered. Supporters—including a number of members who have battled tech-industry opposition for years—were celebrating.

“I think we’ve won this battle,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R., Mo.), the bill’s main sponsor, in an interview shortly before Tuesday’s debate. “It’s been a long journey.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) said during the afternoon floor debate that sex trafficking had “absolutely exploded online,” and termed the legislation “transformative” and a “historic legislative achievement.”

“The perpetrators of this horrific crime need to be held accountable,” Ivanka Trump tweeted on Tuesday, saying she was looking forward to the House vote.

Major internet companies including Facebook Inc. have publicly supported the bill’s basic outline for months. But many in the industry sought to delay its passage, once the House began to move toward Tuesday’s final vote on the far-reaching changes.

The Consumer Technology Association on Tuesday urged lawmakers to postpone a vote until the amended bill could be considered in committee.

“Deviating from regular order to rush through this bill on an artificial timetable without review could inadvertently harm lawful American entrepreneurs, small businesses and our world-leading internet economy,” said president Gary Shapiro.

In a statement, the Internet Association, another industry group, said it is “committed to ending trafficking online.” As for the immunity provision, it “continues to be integral to the success of the internet” and said that the association “will defend against attempts to weaken these crucial protections.”

The underlying legislation, approved in the House Judiciary Committee last year, was a narrower bill largely focused on giving prosecutors more power to go after websites that facilitate sex trafficking, although it also aided victims in some ways. Supporters amended the measure during Tuesday’s debate to effectively end the federal immunity for websites that facilitate sex trafficking.

The vote to add that far-reaching amendment was 308-107.

A group representing startups, Engine, opposed the combination of the two bills, saying it would increase “the risk of unforeseen liability for startups that host user-generated content.”

Activists cheered the House move, however. Linda Smith, a former member of Congress from Washington state who is now president of Shared Hope International, a victim advocacy group, said she was told a couple of years ago that the group’s legislative goal of expanding online services’ legal liability “was not likely to succeed in the face of opposition from the tech industry lobby.”

But now, she said, the “unified voices of survivors and advocates have been heard.”

The bill seeks to address an issue that has become increasingly troublesome—the explosion of online prostitution on sites such as that have allowed their users to advertise adult services. Law-enforcement officials say these advertisements are often thinly disguised solicitations for prostitution. Minor victims also are often trafficked on the sites, according to victim advocates. Backpage has said that it goes to great lengths to try to keep minors off its site and that it works closely with police in criminal investigations.

Many big online companies such as Alphabet Inc. unit Google long resisted changes to the 1990s immunity law, fearing they could open the door to costly lawsuits as well as further erode their immunity. The broader bill would only apply to the facilitation of sex trafficking.

Many of the companies ramped up their efforts to battle trafficking in recent years, while also supporting nonprofits. But political pressure over online trafficking has continued to grow, particularly given the rise of Backpage and its frequent legal clashes with authorities.

“Online trafficking is flourishing because there are no serious legal consequences for the websites that profit,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R., Mo.), a sponsor of the House measure. “This…package will finally give prosecutors the tools they need” to protect communities and help victims obtain justice, she said.

Erin Egan, Facebook vice president of U.S. public policy, said “we applaud the House’s efforts to reach consensus on this important legislation.” She added that the company “will continue working with committed legislators” as the process moves forward.