The bipartisan backlash against Silicon Valley is affecting legislation. Under pressure from lawmakers, a trade group representing major tech companies has reversed its position and agreed to support a bill aimed at curbing online sex trafficking. Google and others initially fought the bill because it proposed changes to a landmark law that shields internet companies from liability for content posted by others on their websites.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, the Internet Association, whose members include Google and Facebook, said it will support the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), a Senate bill with bipartisan support. The Internet Association opposed the bill earlier because it proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the liability shield that allowed online platforms to flourish without the threat of being sued for content on their platforms. Anti-sex-trafficking activists had criticized Google in particular for obstructionist tactics.
SESTA’s goal is to make it easier for both victims and state attorneys general to pursue internet companies that facilitate sex trafficking. State AGs have complained that courts prevented legal action against companies like Backpage.com, citing Section 230.
The trade group’s support came after it worked with legislators on two changes clarifying when companies can be held liable. The first change was around the “knowing conduct” standard, which tech companies argued would have punished good samaritans that have developed tools to root out sex trafficking on their platforms using artificial intelligence. The change clarifies that the law only applies to companies that facilitate sex trafficking, not those trying to identify and stop the behavior. The second change allows state attorneys general to prosecute suspected traffickers under federal, rather than state, law.
Mary Mazzio, a filmmaker behind “I Am Jane Doe,” a documentary about sex trafficking, and a strong supporter of the bill, said she was shocked that an agreement was reached. “When I heard [that] we were one sentence away from a deal with [the Internet Association], my head spun around. I’m honestly thrilled and delighted that IA saw their way forward,” she says.
“Honestly, this is historic,” says Mazzio. She says the law made sense when it was adopted in 1996, but “online harm has blossomed in ways nobody could have imagined.” The fact the industry lent it support is “really unprecedented especially given the dispatches and skirmishes that were happening on the Hill last week,” she says. Executives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter testified to three congressional committees Tuesday and Wednesday about the role of social media and Russian propaganda in the 2016 election.
The Internet Association first indicated that it might be open to amending Section 230 during an emotional hearing in September, but advocates like Mazzio were skeptical at the time.
Sen. Rob Portman, the bill’s Republican cosponsor, said a broad consensus of people and groups now support the bill. “I’m pleased we’ve reached an agreement to further clarify the intent of the bill and advance this important legislation,” he said in a statement.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the bill’s Democratic cosponsor, is pleased that the tech industry understands the need for legal change. “Removing the unwarranted shield from legal responsibility will save countless children from horrific tragedy, both physical and emotional,” he said in a statement.
UPDATE, 8.30PM: This article has been updated to include comments from Sen. Blumenthal.