Photographer: Ammna Mir/Getty Images/EyeEm

Lawmakers Challenge Silicon Valley on Sex-Trafficking Bill

  • ‘It could be your child,’ tearful mother testfies in Senate
  • Bill aimed at Backpage website gets hearing in Congress

Web companies opposed to a federal bill aimed at squelching online trafficking of children faced a blunt challenge from U.S. lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday, and a plea from a mother whose child was slain after being advertised for sex on the Backpage.com website.

“It could be your child,” said a tearful Yvonne Ambrose, whose 16-year-old daughter was found beaten and stabbed to death outside Chicago, and who has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Backpage. The site, Ambrose said, “must be held accountable.”

The bill would make websites such as Backpage.com liable for prosecution if they promote online sex trafficking. Right now web companies enjoy immunity for matter posted by third parties.

Backpage representatives didn’t testify at the hearing and Liz McDougall, the company’s general counsel, declined in an email to comment about the proceedings or the Ambrose case. In a court filing, Backpage said it didn’t create the ads featuring Ambrose’s daughter, and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

Tech companies such as Google and Facebook Inc. and their trade groups say the bill would create greater liability for speech and videos posted by users. Supporters of the measure including Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, say the measure makes a narrow change to deter sex traffickers only, and won’t harm the internet.

“Silicon Valley holds itself as being more than just another industry -- but rather a movement to make the world a better place,” Portman said at the hearing of the Senate commerce committee. “Selling children for sex over the internet can’t be the cost of doing business, and it doesn’t make the world a better place."

More: Google and Facebook Fret Over Anti-Prostitution Bill Fallout

The bill will ensure “that online entities that participate in the trafficking of a child are not legally immune for their crimes,” Yiota Souras, general counsel for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit group, told senators. Souras said courts have held themselves powerless to act under current law.

The Internet Association, a Washington-based group with members including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Snap Inc., said that sex-trafficking is abhorrent and a "horrific crime." But, it said, the bill is too broad.

The measure would create liability for any site “that can be said to benefit from its role in facilitating a sex trafficking violation, even if it has no knowledge that it is doing so,” Abigail Slater, general counsel of the Internet Association, said in testimony. "Backpage.com broke existing law and we agree that it must be fully and quickly brought to justice."

As of Tuesday, 29 senators senators had joined the list of bill sponsors.

Backpage.com is “the leading online marketplace for commercial sex,” according to a report issued in January by a Senate investigative subcommittee.

The Dallas-based site, once part of the Village Voice Media group, has repeatedly fended off attempts by prosecutors and trafficking victims to shut it down, successfully arguing that the immunity conferred by Congress protects its activities.

In one recent case, a California judge threw out charges of pimping, saying federal law shielding websites “even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.”

Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, on Tuesday urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

"We need the tools to go after these folks,” Becerra said. “We’re fighting with two hands tied behind our back.”

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