November 6, 2017 / 11:17 PM / a month ago

Bill to fight online sex-trafficking seen poised to advance in US Senate

NEW YORK, Nov 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Legislation in the U.S. Senate to crack down on websites accused of promoting sex trafficking won praise on Monday from experts and activists who said the measure was poised to move forward.

The bill would amend the nation’s decades-old Communications Decency Act that is widely considered a bedrock legal shield for the internet industry.

The act has been used successfully in court by Backpage.com, a huge classified advertising website accused by lawmakers and in lawsuits of facilitating trafficking, especially of children, in its ads.

The bill in the U.S. Senate would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Insiders say it is likely to be approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, which is slated to vote on Wednesday.

At anti-trafficking group ECPAT-USA, spokesman Jason Matthews said he was cautiously optimistic about the bill’s long-term chances and that it would pass the committee “overwhelmingly.”

ECPAT-USA is among several groups lobbying on behalf of the legislation, called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

If approved by committee, the measure would move to debate and a possible vote by the full Senate.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors also expressed confidence it would “move forward” in a statement on Friday.

A majority of the Senate’s 100 lawmakers has expressed support either privately or by signing on as co-sponsors, Matthews told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Backpage.com has used the Communications Decency Act to argue that it is protected from liability because it does not create content but hosts it. Backpage.com attorney Liz McDougall said the company had no comment on the bill.

The internet industry has fought change to the law for years, arguing that amending it could thwart digital innovation and prompt endless litigation.

But sponsors of the bill last week agreed to make a handful of changes to earn support of internet companies.

Their deal will allow lawsuits against Backpage.com and others to proceed, said Shea Rhodes, director of Pennsylvania’s Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

“It’s the responsibility of the public to push the tech industry to be responsible corporate citizens,” she told the Foundation.

There are currently a handful of such cases in U.S. courts, according to Legal Momentum, an advocacy group for women.

The Internet Association, which represents such tech giants as Facebook, Amazon and Google, announced its support for the bill on Friday.

Some resistance remains, said Evan Engstrom, executive director of Engine, an advocacy group in San Francisco that opposes the bill.

Endorsement by the Internet Association does not necessarily reflect consensus in the industry, he said.

Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org

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