The United States House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow legal action against websites that host advertisements for prostitution — some of which advertise trafficked children. This includes websites like Backpage.
The bill will now go to the Senate and, if approved, to the White House.
The new legislation arose as current anti-trafficking laws could not be applied to websites like Backpage as they were protected under the Communications Decency Act, a law that protects websites from liability for material posted by third parties.
Congress then began investigating Backpage and found that its operators were helping users modify ads to delete references to teenage prostitution, but still kept the ads up.
The Washington Post reports:
The proposed law, titled “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” or “FOSTA,” amends the Communications Decency Act by specifically allowing criminal and civil actions against a website if its conduct violates federal sex trafficking laws.
And in the sex trafficking laws, FOSTA defines a participant as someone “knowingly assisting, supporting or facilitating a violation,” and authorizes state attorneys general to file suit in federal court.
Many Internet companies initially opposed any alteration of the Communications Decency Act, saying it would open them up to lawsuits for content they weren’t aware of or involved in.
But many of the big Internet players dropped their opposition in recent months, with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg renewing her support on Monday, and top executives at IBM, Oracle and Hewlett Packard Enterprise issuing a letter Tuesday backing the legislation.
Other Internet companies, including Google, remained opposed to the new legislation because they worry that it threatens the Communication Decency Act.
Evan Engstrom, executive director of Engine, an advocacy group for Internet start-ups, said “you’re creating a situation that may end up harming efforts to stop human trafficking. It creates potential legal liability for knowingly facilitating trafficking. The definition of knowledge is complicated.” Furthermore, he said material can be posted on websites without hosts’ knowledge.
Still, lawmakers heralded the final vote of 388-25 on the bill as a significant step forward. Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri said “This is a landmark piece of legislation. This is not just about Backpage. There are hundreds of others out there that are much worse. They’ve got to be brought down also.”