Maya Digre, MJLST Staffer
Last week the U.S. Senate voted to approve the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The U.S. House of Representatives also passed a similar bill earlier this year. The bill creates an exception to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows victims of sex trafficking to sue websites that enabled their abuse. The bill was overwhelmingly approved in both the U.S. House and Senate, receiving 388-25 and 97-2 votes respectively. President Trump has indicated that he is likely to sign the bill.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields websites from liability stemming from content posted by third parties on their sites. Many tech companies argue that this provision has allowed them to become successful without a constant threat of liability. However, websites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have recently received criticism for the role they played in unintentionally meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Seemingly the “hands off” approach of many websites has become a problem that Congress now seeks to address, at least with respect to sex trafficking.
The proposed exception would expose websites to liability if they “knowingly” assist, support, or facilitate sex trafficking. The bill seeks to make websites more accountable for posts on their site, discouraging a “hands off” approach.
While the proposed legislation has received bipartisan support from congress, it has been quite controversial in many communities. Tech companies, free-speech advocates, and consensual sex workers all argue that the bill will have unintended adverse consequences. The tech companies and free-speech advocates argue that the bill will stifle speech on the internet, and force smaller tech companies out of business for fear of liability. Consensual sex workers argue that this bill will shut down their online presence, forcing them to engage in high-risk street work. Other debates center on how the “knowingly” standard will affect how websites are run. Critics argue that, in response to this standard, “[s]ites will either censor more content to lower risk of knowing about sex trafficking, or they will dial down moderation in an effort not to know.” At least one website has altered their behavior in the wake of this bill. In response to this legislation Craigslist has remove the “personal ad” platform from their website.