from the this-is-bad dept
It appears that Senator Rob Portman has decided to push forward with SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — a bill with problems we’ve discussed in great detail. Despite previous suggestions that the bill would not move forward until there were important fixes in place, it’s now been announced that a committee vote will happen next week. It’s possible that the bill will be amended prior to that vote, but as of right now, that’s not clear. (Update: And about the time this post was published, a a manager’s amendment has been pushed out. It fixes some of the most egregious problems with the bill, but leaves most of the problems intact.)
In support of this renewed push, Portman has published an opinion piece at Wired that no fact checker should have allowed. It is fully of completely faulty statements, and fairly incredible ones at that. It’s kind of scary that it appears that Portman may be looking to undermine some fundamental principles of how the internet works based on a bunch of false statements. Even the title is just wrong:
How Federal Law Protects Online Sex Traffickers
It doesn’t. Federal law is clear that law enforcement can go after sex traffickers. There is nothing in SESTA about going after sex traffickers. SESTA is entirely about going after internet platforms because someone may have used them in the process of “facilitating” sex trafficking.
It is a stain on our national character that sex trafficking is increasing in this country, in this century, and experts say it is happening because of the internet and the ruthless efficiency of online sex trafficking.
So much to unpack in this one sentence. As discussed earlier, the supposed epidemic of sex trafficking is grossly exaggerated. That is not to say it doesn’t happen — because it quite clearly does, and when it does happen, it’s a serious problem. But Portman specifically has massively exaggerated the scope of the problem, and when you do that it’s easier to support ridiculously overbroad “solutions” that would actually turn the small problem into a much bigger problem.
Sex trafficking has moved from the street corner to the smartphone, and online sex trafficking has predominately occurred through one website: Backpage.com.
And, as explained multiple times, if Backpage has, in fact, broken the law, there are already laws to deal with it. Backpage itself has already shut down its adult section (which only became big after politicians pressured Craigslist to do the same — suggesting that chasing traffickers from platform to platform won’t do much to stop trafficking). Just a few years ago Congress passed the SAVE Act, specifically targeting Backpage. It has not been used. Instead of passing another law, perhaps Portman should be asking why it hasn’t been used? Similarly, CDA 230 has never covered federal crimes. The DOJ has always been able to target Backpage if it was violating the law (and it’s been reported that the DOJ already has a grand jury investigation going into Backpage’s actions). So why do we need a new law?
Headlines tell the tragic stories: In March 2013, police reported that a Miami pimp forced a teen to tattoo his name on her eyelids. In June 2017 in Chicago, feds charged a man for prostituting a 16-year-old girl before her murder. That same month, three people were accused of pimping a pregnant teen for sex.
All of these stories are horrible. But all of them involve criminals who were caught, with some of the evidence coming from Backpage. So, it seems like a bigger question may be: why aren’t the police working harder to scan Backpage for evidence of these crimes and stopping them earlier? In the past, we’ve noted that law enforcement has successfully used these sites as tools to track down pimps and traffickers. It seems so odd to focus all of the attention on websites rather than the actual traffickers. It’s almost as if Portman is trying to take the blame away from the traffickers themselves.
These heinous crimes, and countless others, involve Backpage, and yet the website has repeatedly evaded justice for its role in child sex trafficking.
Because Backpage wasn’t doing the trafficking. And again, if they were, law enforcement is already able to go after the platform.
Despite these facts, courts have consistently ruled that a federal law called the Communications Decency Act protects Backpage from liability for its role in sex trafficking. This 21-year-old law was designed to ensure websites aren?t held liable for crimes others commit using their website. The legislation has an important purpose, but now, because of broad legal interpretations, it is used as a shield by websites that facilitate the sale of women and children for sex.
This is both wrong and a sleight of hand. First, no court has said that Backpage is protected from its role in sex trafficking. If Backpage is actively involved in the sex trafficking itself, it does not qualify for CDA 230 protections. And, again, even without that, there is no immunity in CDA 230 for federal crimes (and, again, the DOJ has a grand jury going on this). The fact that Portman is so proactively misrepresenting nearly everything should worry people.
Similarly, sites are not using CDA 230 “as a shield,” but to make it clear that the focus should be on actual traffickers rather than on the tools they use.
Traffickers use cars as well. Will Portman’s next bill be holding Ford and GM responsible for any trafficking that uses cars?
The Communications Decency Act should not protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us.
IT DOES NOT. It never has. Nothing in CDA 230 protects traffickers. Traffickers are violating the law and law enforcement has every right to go after them. Hell, the three examples that Portman presented above all involve traffickers arrested by law enforcement. That seems to contradict his own point.
I do not believe those in Congress who supported this bill in 1996 ever thought that 21 years later, their vote would allow websites to knowingly traffic women and children over the internet with immunity.
Again, if it the sites themselves are involved in the trafficking, then CDA 230 already doesn’t cover them.
However, courts and attorneys generals have made it clear that their hands are tied. In the most recent example, in August, a Sacramento judge threw out pimping charges against Backpage because of the liability protections afforded by this 1996 law, and he invited Congress to fix this injustice.
No. Their hands are tied in prosecuting Backpage without evidence of Backpage itself breaking the law. That’s different. It doesn’t tie their hands in prosecuting actual traffickers. And it doesn’t stop them from prosecuting Backpage for evidence of actual crimes. Notice how Portman conveniently leaves out that while the judge in Sacramento threw out the pimping charges (because Backpage isn’t doing the pimping) it let the case move forward on money laundering claims. In other words, Backpage is still in court, despite Portman implying that the entire case was dismissed.
This injustice is why I, along with more than two dozen of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle, introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
The bill would do two things. First, it would allow sex trafficking victims to get the justice they deserve by removing the law?s unintended liability protections for websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. Second, it would allow state and local law enforcement to prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
Portman is misleading in his description of his own bill. It does not only apply to those who “knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking.” The “knowledge” standard in the bill is extraordinarily broad, covering “knowing actions” that are then used to facilitate sex trafficking. The distinction may be subtle, but it’s huge. It means that a platform just needs to know about what its service can do, not the outcome. Wikipedia “knows” that people can add links to its online encyclopedia. It doesn’t “know” when someone advertises sex trafficking via such a link. But under the current standard in the bill, that doesn’t matter. The language about knowledge of how a service works, rather than the illegal activities, is a real problem with this bill.
The bill will achieve these ends without threatening the years of progress we have made in creating a free and open internet.
He says this despite the fact that nearly every internet company and expert says he’s wrong. And plenty of sex trafficking experts as well. Just this week, a sex trafficking expert who helped write the State Department’s own report on sex trafficking has said that this would create huge harms for the internet and for victims of sex trafficking.
The standard for liability in our bill is a high bar to meet.
This is simply incorrect. Multiple tech and legal experts have explained this over and over again. Simply saying there’s a high bar does not make it true. The plain language of the bill shows that the bar is extraordinarily low.
Some in the tech community incorrectly claim that this bill will expose innocent websites to frivolous lawsuits. But my Senate colleagues and I carefully crafted this legislation to remove immunity only for websites that can be proven to have intentionally facilitated online sex trafficking.
Again, he can repeat this false claim as much as he wants, and it still doesn’t make it true. The language in the bill is clear. If he wants it to only target those who have “intentionally facilitated online sex trafficking” he needs to change the language. Daphne Keller, at Stanford, just released a paper this week on ways to fix SESTA, and someone should send a copy to Portman.
There are already exemptions in the Communications Decency Act?s liability protections for intellectual property violations that exist without undermining the fundamental intentions of the law. It is unreasonable to suggest the result of a narrowly tailored exemption against knowing sex traffickers would be any different.
This is the most frustrating line in the entire piece. If Portman had the slightest bit of understanding about how the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown provisions are routinely abused to censor the internet, there’s no way he’d claim that it hasn’t “undermined” anything. The fear here is that SESTA creates a kind of DMCA notice-and-takedown on steroids, because it adds possible criminal penalties. From the description here, it almost appears as if Portman doesn’t even know that DMCA safe harbors exist for copyright, or that the lack of CDA 230 coverage for trademarks created a massive influx of court cases until eventually the courts effectively said that there was a DMCA-like safe harbor over trademarks as well.
In short, Portman seems to be either making an argument out of pure ignorance, or intentionally misrepresenting what’s happening on the intellectual property side of the fence.
We have a moral responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us and combat this injustice. Every day we wait is too late for countless vulnerable women and children.
And yet, absolutely nothing in SESTA actually protects those victims. They will still be trafficked. The bill only targets internet companies providing platforms that traffickers use. They will keep using the internet to traffic, even if badly targeted lawsuits take those companies down. Indeed, it’s likely that they’ll move to platforms that make it more difficult for law enforcement to figure out what’s going on. SESTA will make the problem worse, not better, and will create tremendous collateral damage in the meantime.
Filed Under: cda 230, intermediary liability, rob portman, sesta, sex trafficking