By Steven Overly and Ashley Gold
Websites could be held liable for enabling sex traffickers under a bill passed by the House on Tuesday, a major setback for Silicon Valley firms that opposed legislation they believe could threaten a wide array of internet companies which allow users to post their own content.
The measure passed by a vote of 388 to 25. It now goes to the Senate, where a similar bill already enjoys broad bipartisan support.
The legislation would allow state attorneys general and victims to sue websites that "knowingly" facilitate sex trafficking. It's targeted at sites like Backpage.com, the subject of a long-running Senate investigation, which was accused of hosting ads that promoted the trafficking of minors.
But parts of the internet industry believe the measure creates a dangerous precedent that could open up internet companies like Google and Twitter to a litany of lawsuits and potential criminal liability for content posted on their platforms.
"We will be sending a clear message: Businesses that sell human beings online can no longer do so with impunity," said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), a sponsor of the House bill.
The House vote represents the first tangible outcome of the so-called techlash, the growing bipartisan criticism of the tech industry and its expansive power over people's lives. Facebook, Twitter and Google have faced intense scrutiny in recent months over their role in Russian election meddling, the spread of online conspiracy theories, and addiction to social media.
Silicon Valley and its lobbyists have managed to tamp down most of the regulation talk, but they haven't been able to slow the momentum of the anti-sex trafficking legislation, which has deep support on both sides of the aisle. Lawmakers are motivated by frustration with sites like Backpage.com, as well as the stories of victims who've been canvassing the Hill with emotionally charged tales of abuse.
"We are thrilled that the House and its leadership heard the voices of children and survivors from across the country, all of whom have been fighting for this bill," said Mary Mazzio, director of the sex trafficking documentary "I am Jane Doe."
The House bill is poised for a relatively smooth ride in the Senate. It was amended Monday to incorporate language from a Senate measure, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act which is already backed by 67 senators.
The legislation alters Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects websites from lawsuits over user-generated content. Tech groups portrayed the provision as a sacred tenet of the internet, helping give rise to the free flow of communication online.
But those arguments proved difficult to make without appearing soft on sex trafficking. Ultimately, tech associations and companies split under the pressure. The Internet Association and Facebook, one of its prominent members, publicly voiced support. Engine, the Consumer Technology Association and NetChoice, among others, stood opposed. Non-internet tech companies, including Oracle, IBM, 21st Century Fox and Disney, also supported the legislation.
Now that the legislation is gaining traction, tech groups say they're determined to make sure Congress and the courts do not further erode laws that protect the internet industry.
Carl Szabo, general counsel for NetChoice, said the trade group hopes "the law is not abused to undermine things like user-generated content or small businesses that have no interest in and are actually fighting sex trafficking." The Internet Association said Tuesday it "will defend against attempts to weaken these crucial protections."