Samuel Louwagie, MJLST Staffer
Should web companies be held liable when users engage in criminal sex trafficking on the platforms they provide? Members of both political parties in Congress are pushing to make the answer to that question yes, over the opposition of tech giants like Google.
The Communications Decency Act was enacted in 1934. In the early 1990s, as the Internet went live, Congress added Section 230 to the act. That provision protected providers of web platforms from civil liability for content posted by users of those platforms. The act states that in order to “promote the continued development of the internet . . . No provider of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” That protection, according to the ACLU, “defines Internet culture as we know it.”
Earlier this month, Congress debated an amendment to Section 230 called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. The act would remove that protection from web platforms that knowingly allow sex trafficking to take place. The proposal comes after the First Circuit Court of Appeals held in March of 2016 that even though Backpage.com played a role in trafficking underage girls, section 230 protected it from liability. Sen. Rob Portman, a co-sponsor of the bill, wrote that it is Congress’ “responsibility to change this law” while “women and children have . . . their most basic rights stripped from them.” And even some tech companies, such as Oracle, have supported the bill.
Google, meanwhile, has resisted such emotional pleas. Its lobbyists have argued that Backpage.com could be criminally prosecuted, and that to remove core protections from internet companies will damage the free nature of the web. Critics, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, argue the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was crafted “exceedingly narrowly to target those intentionally engaged in trafficking children.”
The bill has bipartisan support and appears to be gaining steam. The Internet Association, a trade group including Google and Facebook, expressed a willingness at a Congressional hearing to supporting “targeted amendments” to the Communications Decency Act. Whether Google likes it or not, eventually platforms will be at legal risk if they don’t police their content for sex trafficking.