House Passes Online Sex-Trafficking Bill After Big Tech Companies Back Off

The House on Tuesday passed a bill that gives victims and prosecutors more power to sue websites that knowingly aided sex trafficking, adding a new level of accountability for internet companies.

Silicon Valley had strongly opposed the bill, because it would chip away at an existing law that gives internet companies broad immunity for the content that people put on their services. Tech companies that argued against the bill said that the current law has encouraged free speech online and helped the internet thrive.

But sex trafficking victims and law enforcement officials say the existing law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has been too loosely applied by sites like Backpage.com, a site known for prostitution and sex trafficking. Some large online companies, including Facebook, eventually backed off from their opposition to the bill after its scope was narrowed.

“Congress never intended for the internet to be a haven for criminal activity,” said Representative Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican who introduced the bill, known as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. “This is not a slippery slope. It is a narrow amendment to stop crimes by businesses online that they weren’t able to commit offline.”

A similar bill in the Senate was expected to pass soon.

The new legislation would not affect most internet companies. A victim would need to prove a site had knowingly facilitated sex trafficking to successfully sue the company. But not all online companies could hide behind the Section 230 shield.

The bill’s passage in the House signaled an important turning point for an industry that has largely operated free of regulations. Pressure has been mounting for social media companies and other internet giants to be better stewards of their powerful platforms.

Facebook, in particular, has come under pressure over the spread of misinformation and the exertion of foreign interference during the 2016 presidential election. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called for regulations, including disclosures on political advertising, but those efforts have been slow to gain wide support.

“Clearly the environment has changed a lot for big internet companies over the past year,” said Paul Gallant, a tech and telecom industry analyst at Cowen & Co. “But I still don’t think there is a willingness for the government to pursue fundamental business model changes.”

Facebook began to change its position on the bill last fall, before congressional hearings on sex-trafficking bills and an intelligence committee hearing on Russian influence on social networks.

“We all have a responsibility to do our part to fight this,” Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote in a post on the site this week. “We at Facebook support efforts to pass amended legislation in the House that would allow responsible companies to continue fighting sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that knowingly facilitate such abhorrent acts.”

Some large tech companies, including Oracle, IBM and HP, have supported the new legislative effort all along. But many start-ups, including those represented by Engine Advocacy, a trade group, remained opposed to the bills.

Engine Advocacy said part of the bill would hurt start-ups that lean heavily on user-generated content, and could lead Congress to take more actions to weaken the openness of the internet.