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Facebook and other tech companies reverse course, decide to back Senate bill to stop sex trafficking

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg posted on social media that the social media giant backs SESTA bill to help stop sex trafficking. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)

A Senate bill intended to fight sex-trafficking on the internet is now being backed by big tech companies, including Facebook.

“This important piece of legislation allows platforms to fight sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that don’t," Sheryl Sandburg, Facebook COO, wrote Tuesday in a Facebook post. “As this moves through the Senate and the House, we’re here to support it — and to make sure that the internet becomes a safer place for all vulnerable girls, children, women, and men who deserve to be protected.” 

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was introduced in August, would enable prosecutors and victims to take websites to court for knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating sex-trafficking businesses. In other words, if a company played any role in enabling the behavior, it would be held liable.

The Internet Association, along with a number online companies, originally opposed the bipartisan-backed bill. The Internet Association is a group that represents tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Amazon.

But the Internet Association and others reversed their stance after the bill's authors reworded some of the bill's language.

“This important bill will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who helped write the bill, said in a statement. “I’m pleased we’ve reached an agreement to further clarify the intent of the bill and advance this important legislation.”

Why did some internet giants oppose the bill?

Companies are concerned about their business models being damaged, opening them up to lawsuits and removing the protections provided by the 1996 Communications Decency Act, The Hill reported. Under the 1996 Communications Decency Act, websites can’t be held liable for content posted by third-party users.

The Internet Association warned that the original bill "jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open internet, with serious economic and speech implications well beyond its intended scope," according to Axios.

What changes were made that reversed their stance?

Lawmakers and the Internet Association worked together to clarify some of the bill's language.

One change made is the “knowing conduct” standard, which tech companies argued would punish those who are working to develop tools that look for and block sex trafficking platforms their platforms.

The "knowing conduct" standard means that any person or company that knows about sex trafficking behaviors can be prosecuted for playing a role in the activities. The problem with this is that companies trying to develop tools to block the behavior must also be aware of websites that are purposely supporting such behaviors. 

The wording for "knowing conduct" changed to "knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating."

That clarification means that only companies that are facilitating the behavior are liable. Those trying to identify the behavior will not be liable, Wired reported.

Why does this matter?

This endorsement could be key in getting the bill passed. Companies are under a lot of pressure to take responsibility for content that appears on their platforms.

Obviously, tech companies don't want to be linked to sex-trafficking schemes but many have worries about the laws that may open the door to more legal liability for content on their sites down the road, Axios reported. 

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