Congress

Internet Association Counsel Testifies Against SESTA Bill

Group says Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, as written, is not a viable solution 9/19/2017 9:34 AM Eastern

The members of the Internet Association, which bills itself as the "unified voice of the internet economy," are apparently pretty unified against the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), saying the bill could lead to less monitoring of sex trafficking, embolden foreign powers looking to suppress speech, and have unintended consequences that could affect social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

That's according to the testimony of association general counsel Abigail Slater for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the bill Tuesday (Sept. 19), a bill that was prompted in part by an investigation of backpage.com.

Related: Senate Vets Online Speech Liability Bill

The association's 40-plus members include Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Netflix.

Slater took pains to point out that the IA's members believe sex trafficking is a "horrific" crime that must be stopped, and those perpetrating it should be held accountable.

The IA also said it supports targeted changes to the Communications Decency Act to allow victims of sex trafficking to seek legal recourse. Those could include, for example, an amendment that allows civil suits against online actors with demonstrated "knowledge and intent" to facilitate sex trafficking.

Related: CCIA Warns About New Online Liability Law

The association said its members are already key and "committed" actors in the fight against sex trafficking.

"The internet industry stands ready to work with you on legislative approaches that ensure justice and contribute to the fight against trafficking," she said.

But, as well intentioned as SESTA might be, she said, it would make IA's member companies "liable for all their ongoing work with law enforcement." The bill would harm good actors, while undermining the goal of combatting trafficking, the IA said.

Slater said the bill, as written, does not require knowledge of the illegal activity or a means to stop it for a site's protection from liability to be eliminated. The bill does require "knowing conduct," but that is not a legally defined term and could be interpreted as the fact that a platform knows its users communicate, which would encompass all social media sites. The term "facilitate" is also extremely broad, she said.

Not only would the bill create new legal risks for websites, it would also create contributory liability risks for a host of innocent businesses, Slater added. And allowing for civil liability would result in "playing whack-a-mole" with URLS/domains in courts, which is unlikely to stop bad actors, who can simply move overseas or change their URLs.

Removing civil liability protections would create a disincentive for providers to look for evidence of trafficking since it could implicate them in civil and criminal causes of action.

She also told the Senators the bill would "send a dangerous signal to other countries that are seeking to require U.S. internet services to filter dissenting political speech and allegations of corruption."

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