Internet Firms Now Back Sex Trafficking Bill

Internet Firms Now Back Sex Trafficking Bill.

Big internet companies on Friday signalled their support for a Senate bill aimed at curbing online sex trafficking, apparently ending what had become a difficult political fight. The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), would carve out an exception for sex trafficking in the sweeping legal immunity that Congress granted to internet businesses in the 1990s. Many critics contend that the immunity law has allowed a number of sites featuring prostitution ads to flourish. The change now being debated in Congress would allow underage victims of sex trafficking, as well as local prosecutors, to file civil lawsuits or take other legal action against businesses that facilitate online trafficking.

The major internet firms, including Alphabet Inc. unit Google, say they already make extensive efforts to combat sex trafficking on their platforms. But they initially fought the legislation, believing it could open the door to other exceptions in the immunity law, which they regard as a foundation of the internet economy. The Internet Association, which includes Google as well as Facebook Inc., announced its support for the bill, after sponsors agreed to several changes that somewhat tighten the bill’s reach. The biggest changes would require suits under the bill to apply federal law standards concerning trafficking rather than a patchwork of state standards.

Mr. Portman said the bill as amended “will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve.” Mr. Blumenthal said, “I’m pleased that the industry has commendably accepted the need for legal change and accountability. Internet Association is committed to combating sexual exploitation and sex trafficking online and supports” the legislation, association President Michael Beckerman said. “Important changes made to [the legislation] 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.”

The shift underscores the changing political dynamics in Washington for the big internet firms, which held enormous sway during the Obama years. But they find themselves on defense this year on a range of issues, including sex trafficking as well as alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Credit: John D. McKinnon for The Wall Street Journal 3 November 2017.