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Sen. Portman, internet companies differ over sex trafficking approach

The group representing Facebook, Google and dozens more of the largest internet companies will testify in opposition to Sen. Rob Portman’s bill intended to curb online sex trafficking, according to an advance copy of the testimony given to the Dayton Daily News before Tuesday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

MORE: Portman going after website accused of aiding sex trafficking

Internet Association says Portman’s well-intentioned Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act would hold internet sites potentially liable for sex trafficking on their sites, even if the website has no knowledge it is doing so or any practical way of stopping it.

Portman, R-Ohio, says the group’s opposition is “ridiculous” and called the bill “the only way” to stop sex trafficking on websites such as Backpage, one of the world’s largest classified advertising websites.

Backpage is not a member of the Internet Association, but has successfully defended itself in a spate of lawsuits from parents of children trafficked on the site. Backpage successfully argued that they are protected by a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects internet publishers from content created by users.

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“We have to say that there will be, under what’s called the Communications Decency Act, a change that says if you knowingly facilitate, support or assist sex trafficking, you are liable,” Portman said Monday in an interview at the Dayton Daily News’ offices. “The tech companies will be testifying there saying they’re concerned about this law because they’re worried about internet freedoms. I think that’s ridiculous.”

MORE: Report says child sex ads pushed through Backpage

“In fact, we have a Good Samaritan provision that says if you’re trying to clean up your own site, you’re protected as a Good Samaritan,” Portman said.

But Internet Association calls sections of Portman’s bill “broad,” citing certain phrases in particular.

The group says the term “knowing conduct,” which is included in the bill, “could include the fact that a platform simply knows that users communicate on its site.” The group encourages clarifying the phrase “assists, supports, or facilitates” to require knowledge that sex trafficking is taking place. The group also said the term “facilitate” is defined by courts as “to make easier or less difficult.”

“This means that a prosecutor could simply allege that the use of a platform for coded communication connected to trafficking, without knowledge by the platform, facilitated sex trafficking; because the platform knows that users communicate generally on the site, a prosecutor would have to go no further in introducing cause for liability,” wrote Abigail Slater, the group’s general council.

Other companies are embracing Portman’s legislation. Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the information technology solutions arm of the former Hewlett-Packard Conpany, endorsed Portman’s legislation Monday.

“As an industry-leading, global technology company that has long taken a stand against forced labor and human trafficking, and has made it a priority to protect and elevate vulnerable worker groups, we believe the technology sector has a responsibility to help policymakers and law enforcement combat illicit and criminal activity on the internet, especially sex trafficking,” wrote John F. Schultz, the company’s general counsel.

Backpage did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.

MORE: Backpage CEO is no-show at sex-trafficking hearing

In January, Backpage’s chief executive, Carl Ferrer, three times cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to not answer questions asked by Portman, R-Ohio, during a Senate investigations subcommittee meeting.

The hearing was one day after the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which Portman chairs, released a report which charged that Backpage published the ads after deleting certain words and content that suggests it involves a child. The effort sanitized the ads while allowing them to be posted on the website, according to the report.

Portman subpoenaed Ferrer in 2015 to address the subcommittee; when he ignored that subpoena, the Senate passed a civil contempt resolution to authorize a vote against Backpage — the first time such a legal action had been taken in 20 years.

Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received reports of 22,191 sex trafficking incidents — 5,551 alone in 2016. And the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015 — an increase that the organization linked to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.

Staff Writers Jack Torry and Jessica Wehrman contributed reporting from Washington.

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