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US Senate panel promotes websites' liability for sex trafficking

The U.S. Senate's Commerce Committee has passed a measure that would change the liability rules for internet platforms that host certain exploitive materials. States and victims would be able to sue internet hosts, social media companies and advertising platforms for negligently allowing sex trafficking. It also contains a mechanism for holding companies criminally responsible.

Currently, part of the federal Communications Decency Act protects websites from any liability for the illegal activities of their users. That has meant that companies generally handled the issue by pulling down content and blocking users when third parties complained.

This bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, would change the Communications Decency Act to allow for civil and criminal liability if websites engage in activities that assist sex traffickers.

"This is a momentous day in our fight to hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve," said one of the bill's co-authors, Republican Senator Rob Portman.

How would the new law work?

Presumably, lawsuits by states and victims under the proposal would be based on proof that the website was negligent about policing these activities.

Website companies could be criminally charged if they "knowingly" facilitate sex trafficking. Any criminal charges would have to be based on a company having violated existing federal human trafficking law.

A bipartisan group of more than 40 senators co-sponsored the bill, which passed committee in a unanimous voice vote. In order to become law it still needs to pass the full Senate and the House of Representatives, and be signed into law by the president.

One senator, however, has placed the bill on hold, preventing a quick vote in the Senate. His concerns reflect worries that the changes would stifle innovation, at least among smaller companies. This has been the general objection by internet companies to changes in the law. They say that policing users' activities takes a great deal of time and effort, so doing so could affect innovation.

In a surprise move, however, the Internet Association announced support for the bill. This is an industry group that represents players such as Amazon, Facebook and Google. The group had asked for a series of changes clarifying the standard for when companies could be charged with crimes. Once those changes were in place, the group dropped its opposition.

A dozen or so civil liberties groups still oppose the bill. They worry that smaller companies with fewer resources could have a harder time policing their platforms. That could put them at risk of lawsuits and criminal liability simply for failing to live up to the standards larger companies set. Moreover, they claim some of the provisions could threaten online free speech.

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