- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Senators are laying the groundwork for a major change in internet liability law, saying their hand has been forced by cases like Backpage.com, which saw the web’s former top adult-services site accused of knowingly letting underage girls be sold for sex.

A coalition of Democrats and Republicans said Backpage tried to shield itself with claims of being an internet publisher, saying that while it ran others’ ads, it didn’t create them, so it wasn’t responsible — including ads that communicated to those in the know that underage girls were being made available.

With Backpage racking up wins in court, the lawmakers now say only a change to the 1996 law that helped craft the freewheeling internet can being sex trafficking under control.

“Courts around the country have ruled that Backpage has broad immunity It’s a 1996 law that has not kept up with the times,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican. “Only Congress can fix this injustice.”

Mr. Portman and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, respectively the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the last Congress, led a landmark probe into Backpage that pried loose more than a million documents the panel said showed Backpage knew it was being used to sell underage girls for sex.

Mr. Portman said the site tried to hide its activities but made money from the ad fees, making it complicit in trafficking.

But when prosecutors have tried to bring cases, or alleged victims have sued to try to claim damages against Backpage, judges have said the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects the company.

Internet companies consider that law the catalyst for the massive growth of the world’s online backbone, which has exploded from niche tool in 1996 to the centerpiece of the global economy two decades later.

The companies, and some very important defenders on Capitol Hill, said Congress needs to be extremely careful not to limit the internet as it tries to curtail illicit online activities such as selling sex.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who wrote the original protections of the CDA, said he considers himself one of the leaders against trafficking, but warned against “political bloviating” to reach a solution. He said he supports giving police more resources to target traffickers, but said changing the 1996 law could have unintended consequences for the internet.

“I just believe the legislation being considered today is the wrong answer,” he said.

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said companies already rely on “safe harbor” Mr. Wyden’s language in the 1996 law to protect themselves. Under that provision, companies that do try to edit out outrageous online behavior can’t be held liable.

Mr. Goldman said he fears any changes to the law would actually leave companies so afraid that they would instead cut out their efforts to moderate their forums, leaving the internet worse off.

Senators on the Commerce Committee, which heard testimony Tuesday, seemed intent on acting, but were conflicted on whether they’ve got the right solution.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, pleaded with them for more powers. He pointed to his state’s prosecution of Backpage, which lodged a 36-count indictment. Of those 11 charges were for pimping — and they were all tossed last month by a judge who said the 1996 law barred Backpage from liability for the content of the ads it ran.

The judge did allow money-laundering and conspiracy charges to proceed.

Yvonne Ambrose pleaded with lawmakers to do something.

With her bottom lip quivering, she described the tragedy of her daughter, 16-year-old Desiree Robinson, a runaway who Ms. Ambrose said was sold online for sex through Backpage. Ms. Ambrose said that on Christmas Eve last year she was driven by her pimp to meet a 32-year-old man who beat, raped and strangled her, then slit her throat.

“If there were stricter rules in place for posting on these websites, then my child would still be alive for me today,” Ms. Ambrose said. “If we don’t speak up now these websites will continue to profit off trafficking these babies.”

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