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August 8, 2017

MAYBE THAT’S THE GOAL: Sex trafficking bill would make the internet a wasteland.

Last week, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) released the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA). Don’t let the title fool you. It won’t stop sex trafficking — a worthy goal we should all share — but it might eviscerate the Internet ecosystem.

The bill would make a number of changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides limited liability protections for websites that serve as platforms for user-generated content.

That means that tech companies, big and small, are not civilly liable for the content posted by their users and that accusations of criminal liability are to be prosecuted at the federal, not state, level. SESTA would upend that safe harbor provision, ensuring Section 230 no longer applies that liability exemption to websites that benefit “from participation in a venture” that could be linked to sex trafficking.

The legislation appears to be aimed at Backpage.com, which has been under investigation for acting as a channel for human trafficking. The company has repeatedly used Section 230 as a shield from liability for the actions of its users, but recent evidence has come to light suggesting its actions don’t qualify it for those protections because it actively engaged in facilitating the criminal activity in question. Thus, current law can effectively address the sex trafficking issue, but SESTA would have far-reaching and potentially catastrophic results for the rest of the Internet.

Also, “prostitution” isn’t “human trafficking” when it’s consensual, and the term “sex trafficking” is intended to obscure the difference. If consensual prostitution were legal, it would be much easier to shut down the “human trafficking.”