Six Senators Slam House's `Harmful' Sex-Trafficking Proposal

(Bloomberg) -- A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators slammed a proposal from the House Judiciary Committee to curb online sex-trafficking as “harmful” and said it’s insufficient to secure justice for victims.

The senators, including Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said in a statement Thursday that “victims advocacy groups have told us with a clear voice that the House Judiciary bill is harmful to our efforts to protect trafficking survivors.”

The dispute between the chambers comes as internet companies and tech advocates have fought among themselves — and sometimes against victims advocates — about the level of responsibility that online platforms such as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google should take for their users’ content, as well as how to impede sex trafficking. Tech advocates say the protections helped the internet flourish.

“We are confident the full Senate will pass this proposal very soon in an overwhelming, bipartisan fashion,” the group of six senators said of a version they’re backing. “As this process moves forward, we will continue the dialogue with all stakeholders, but we’re not going to enact a hollow proposal masquerading as a serious solution.”

Legislation that was approved by the House committee Dec. 12 would make it a crime to operate a facility such as a hotel or an internet platform with the intent to promote prostitution of another person.

The senators called that proposal “rushed” and said it would make trafficking more difficult to prosecute.

‘Strong Opposition’

In a Dec. 11 letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a group of trafficking victims also expressed "strong opposition" to the proposal and argued its emphasis on intent "makes it nearly impossible" to file civil cases against traffickers.

An earlier version of the House bill, which resembled the current Senate proposal, initially caused concern in the tech community because it curbed some liability protections that online platforms enjoy for content posted by their users. The Senate’s bill focuses on knowingly facilitating online sex trafficking, rather than prostitution.

The Internet Association, a trade group which includes Google and Facebook, eventually signed on to the Senate bill as well the House’s current approach.

Goodlatte said in a Thursday statement "the committee worked with law enforcement to craft the bill, so it contains the tools we know they need to better prosecute these crimes."

"Knowingly advertising sex trafficking itself can be very hard to prove, so the bill creates a new federal crime for intentionally promoting prostitution, which as we all know often includes sex trafficking," Goodlatte said. "This new statute will give prosecutors and victims a more direct way of fighting these heinous crimes and taking down bad actor websites, without proving that the website knew the activity was in fact sex trafficking, which is rarely stated in the advertisement."

The bills largely target sites such as Backpage.com, which is known for its alleged role in providing an advertising platform for teen prostitution.

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, signed on to the statement, as did Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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