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Senate passes anti-sex-trafficking bill, internet groups express concerns

The Senate voted 97-2 March 21 to pass a bill aimed at preventing sex trafficking online.

The bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms from civil and state criminal prosecution for content created and posted by users. The protection extends to those times when users are posting unlawful content or using the platform for unlawful behavior.

The bipartisan bill would limit that historic protection to create new legal liability for internet companies whose sites knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and other crimes through content hosted on their platforms. Specifically, liability would apply to any company whose participation involves "knowing conduct that, by any means, assists, supports, or facilitates" sex trafficking.

Following the Senate vote, the Internet Association — a trade group and lobbying organization that represents new media companies such as Alphabet Inc., Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. — said that while it supports the goal of preventing sex trafficking online, it believes any efforts to constrain Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act carry their own dangers.

"CDA 230 is the key tool that allows internet companies to make good samaritan efforts to fight against trafficking and other forms of abuse without facing broader legal risk for doing so," Internet Association CEO and President Michael Beckerman said, adding that the group will continue working to "prevent attempts to weaken this crucial protection."

Similarly, Consumer Technology Association President and CEO Gary Shapiro said Section 230's intermediary liability limitations are "the legal bedrock for U.S. leadership of the global internet economy." He urged Congress to refuse further requests to weaken Section 230 and called for an implementation of SESTA that "minimizes harmful consequences on lawful U.S. businesses, especially small businesses and startups."

As the House already passed its version of SESTA a few weeks ago, the bill now heads to the White House for President Donald Trump's signature. The White House previously expressed support for the bill.