US bill holds websites liable for online sex trade

Boyd offered the DOJ’s help to craft narrowly tailored legislation to achieve the goal. — AFP picBoyd offered the DOJ’s help to craft narrowly tailored legislation to achieve the goal. — AFP picWASHINGTON, Feb 28 — US lawmakers yesterday passed legislation aimed at holding website owners liable for human trafficking, but critics say it could undermine free speech on the internet.

The bill passed by a large majority in the House of Representatives, but must be reconciled with Senate legislation and approved by that body before heading to the president’s desk to be signed.

US Assistant Attorney-General Stephen Boyd sent a letter to the House yesterday supporting the intent of the law, but warning that part of it might violate the US Constitution.

“We applaud House and Senate legislative efforts to address the use of websites to facilitate sex trafficking and to protect and restore victims who were sold for sex online,” Boyd said in the letter.

“The Department (of Justice) also notes that a provision in the bill raises a serious constitutional concern.”

Boyd offered the DOJ’s help to craft “narrowly tailored” legislation to achieve the goal.

The White House also praised the legislators’ intent, but said it “remains concerned about certain provisions in the bill, as expressed in the Department of Justice’s technical assistance, and hopes that these issues can be resolved.”

The bill aims to make it easier to bring to criminal charges against websites that knowingly facilitate or promote sex trafficking.

The measure seeks to reconcile separate legislative efforts in the House and Senate and is aimed at websites such as Backpage, which has been accused of facilitating sexual exploitation.

‘Confusing mashup’

The bill “will significantly help prosecutors crack down on websites that promote sex trafficking, while providing much-needed recourse for the thousands of men, women, and children who are victims of this evil industry,” said Representative Mimi Walters, a California Republican and sponsor of an amendment to resolve differences in the House and Senate bills.

But critics of the measure say the legislation would undermine a basic underpinning of the internet, which enables websites to host information from third parties without liability.

Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology said the bill “would create a confusing mashup of overlapping forms of federal and state criminal and civil liability for internet intermediaries” and result in online censorship of legal content.

“This bill jeopardizes not only classified ads sites but also dating apps, discussion forums, social media sites, and any other service that hosts user-generated content,” Llanso said.

Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said if the bill becomes law, it could encourage website operators to censor any potentially-risky content, or to take a hands-off approach to show they did not “knowingly” facilitate human trafficking.

“The ‘moderator’s dilemma’ is bad news because it encourages internet companies to dial down their content moderation efforts, potentially increasing the quantity of ‘bad’ content online — including, counterproductively, the quantity of now-unmoderated sex trafficking promotions,” Goldman said in a blog post. — AFP