Congress Passes Legislation To Curb Online Sex Trafficking Of Children
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Congress acted today to make websites more responsible for ads and posts that cover up a major crime - sex trafficking of children. Today's vote in the Senate was a landslide, and President Trump is now expected to sign it. That is over the objections of some Internet companies and free speech advocates who warn that this legislation will weaken the law that gave us the Internet as we know it. NPR's Alina Selyukh has been covering the legislation, and she joins us now. Hey, Alina.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: So what exactly does this measure do?
SELYUKH: So the idea, as you were saying, is to crack down on sex trafficking of children, which is a shockingly common crime in the U.S. It happens a lot to thousands of children around the country. And the legislation to stop this crime is understandably hugely popular. The majority of the Senate signed on as co-sponsors. The White House is on board.
And when I talked to Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio - he's one of the champions of this legislation - he specifically blamed the Internet for the proliferation of this crime. He says it's moved from the street corner to the smartphone, these shady websites making it very easy. So the bill puts websites on the hook. It allows more lawsuits from states and trafficking victims against websites that, quote, "knowingly assist, support or facilitate sex trafficking of children."
CHANG: Which seems like a legitimate objective. But why are so many in the tech industry opposed to this legislation?
SELYUKH: So this actually takes us back to this law written in 1996 that goes by the name of Section 230.
SELYUKH: And Section 230 is considered to be the law that propped up the creation of the Internet that we know today. The law says online platforms cannot be sued for something posted by a user, and that remains true even if they act a little like publishers by moderating posts or setting specific community standards. It's been huge for the growth of the Internet. Here's Michael Beckerman of the Internet Association, which represents some of the largest Internet companies.
MICHAEL BECKERMAN: It's been pointed to not just by us but by legal scholars and economists as the one line of federal code that has created more economic value in this country than any other.
SELYUKH: And the argument goes, without Section 230, we wouldn't have any kind of social media or websites that rely on regular people posting strong opinions or reviews, like YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter or even Amazon.
CHANG: But we're not just talking about the Googles, Twitters, Amazons of the world. We're talking about sex trafficking sites, right? So how have those sites used Section 230 as a legal shield?
SELYUKH: So this is the dark side of this law. And specifically it goes back to the story of a website called backpage.com. It's a site that's classified sort of like Craigslist, but it's become known for its adult services ads. And some of those ads feature young girls, children being forced into prostitution. And many victims and their families have tried to sue Backpage for this crime, and they lost case after case. And Backpage was able to convince judges across the country that this legal shield, Section 230, applied to them, and that has ignited the congressional action we saw today.
CHANG: OK, but even with this new law in place, what is likely to be the real-world impact? I mean, is child sex trafficking really going to disappear from the Internet?
SELYUKH: The child protection groups hope that at least it will give victims more opportunities to get justice in courts against websites that knowingly facilitate the crime. Some Internet companies and free expression advocates warn about exactly that - that sex trafficking could simply just move deeper into the dark web. They also warn that some websites might start censoring more or just completely ignoring what happens on their platforms to avoid this new kind of liability.
Broadly speaking, for the tech-minded folks, this is the first major cutback to the protections that these companies have had under the law. And I think this is just the beginning of Congress tackling this big question of how much responsibility Internet companies of today should have for what users do and how they get treated online.
CHANG: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thank you very much.
SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.