Walters: Sex Trafficking Bill Threatens Innovation, Free Speech

Walters: Sex Trafficking Bill Threatens Innovation, Free Speech
Rhett Pardon

WASHINGTON — An adult industry attorney said a new bill that carves a significant chunk out of Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act would create a “chilling effect” and stifle internet innovation and free expression if passed.

The bill, titled the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, would potentially expand criminal liability for websites like Backpage.com, which have relied on Section 230 to provide legal immunity for posts of their users.

Attorney Lawrence Walters of Walters Law Group told XBIZ today that Section 230 has been critically important to the development and functioning of the Internet as a whole and that businesses could suffer as a result.

“Imposing liability on intermediaries based on content posted by third parties is a terrible legislative idea which threatens online innovation and free expression,” said Walters, who coincidentally represents Backpage.com along with attorney Robert Corn-Revere in a civil suit waged by Florida Abolitionists and a Jane Doe.

“We spend most of our days on sites that depend on Section 230 for survival, such as Google, Facebook and YouTube,” Walters said. “If these sites will now be required to sift through terabytes of data to determine whether some post or video or ad might facilitate sex trafficking, their continued existence is threatened."

Aside from the practical burdens imposed by forcing careful review of all user-generated content, Walters said that bills like the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 would encourage massive self-censorship by intermediaries.

“When faced with a potential lengthy prison sentence, intermediaries will almost certainly choose to remove a substantial amount of protected speech, simply to mitigate risks. The chilling effect caused by this legislation is palpable and dangerous.”

The piece of legislation, introduced by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, is the result of a two-year Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations inquiry into online sex trafficking — particularly sites like Backpage.com that have profited from ads for escorts.

Portman’s bill seeks to amend Section 230 to make it possible to hold site operators legally liable for user content posted to their sites if that content is "advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims."

In previous testimony and court filings, Backpage.com officials have argued that its service merely hosts ads created by others and so has no liability.

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