Does SESTA Legislation Go Too Far?

SESTA is The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act

A bill limiting websites’ immunity in sex-trafficking cases is causing a bit of ruckus among legislators and content providers alike. Some internet companies have resisted changes to the current federal immunity law, fearing that a narrow exception for sex trafficking could open the door to other exceptions that could open up some sites to unfair lawsuits. The Washington Post reported on Saturday,

“Senate leaders are pushing ahead with legislation aimed at curbing online sex trafficking, despite last-minute efforts by some tech companies and their allies to soften or slow down the effort. The measure, which the Senate is expected to consider next week, would help prosecutors and victims take to court websites that have facilitated the internet sex business by limiting the broad federal immunity online businesses now enjoy for actions of their users. The immunity law was adopted in the 1990s as a way to nurture the fledgling internet. Trafficking lawsuits against online businesses have usually been tossed out of court because of the immunity.”

Proponents of this legislature, such as Rob Portman, Republican Senator of Ohio, claim it is needed to hit back against sites engaged in online sex trafficking, usually involving minors. So here’s the million dollar question: why would anyone be against a bill that aims to protect victims of human sex trafficking?

Many in the tech industry are approaching this bill with extreme caution. Of course, nobody wants to flat-out come out against a bill protecting minors from sex trafficking, but some believe there is a likelihood that the immunity law may go way too far, and eliminating it may subject some more harmless and benign websites to needless, costly lawsuits and help destroy a protection that once allowed the internet to thrive and grow.The Washington Post article goes on to say,

“That quandary has left an industry typically aligned together on policy issues divided on tactics and sending mixed signals about its position. For several years, big internet companies such as Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit resisted any changes to the federal immunity law, fearing that carving out even a narrow exception for sex trafficking could open the door to exceptions for other harms perpetrated on the internet.”

But thanks to pressure from advocacy groups as well as lawmakers, Facebook now says it’s on board, despite their reservations. Other major tech associations have split on their support for the bill.

So what’s next? The next battle over the legislation will come over suggested amendments to the bill that have been advocated by Ron Wyden, Senator from Oregon, a longtime critic of efforts to change the immunity standard. Senator Wyden’s amendments would guarantee extra funding for prosecution of sex traffickers on their own platforms, without being hassled with costly lawsuits. A few tech advocates have been lobbying the Senate to adopt these amendments, saying they would make the legislature less harmful while still protecting young people from exploitation.

However, victim-rights groups have other opinions about the proposed amendments and believe this could kill the legislation because it would have to to go back to the House for another vote.

Even arguing against sex-trafficking legislation to improve the bill can be an extremely slippery slope, and not the most politically expedient and moral position. How many tech industry advocates and legislators are really willing to die on this hill? And speaking of dying on a “shining city on a hill”: the Trump White House supports the legislation.

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