- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Brushing aside warnings about censoring the Internet, Republican and Democratic senators linked arms and voted Wednesday to impose new rules on online forums, pushing them to do more to police their postings in hopes of stopping an explosion of sex trafficking, particularly of children.

Lawmakers insisted they’d struck the right balance and won’t stifle the free-wheeling nature of the Internet, but will instead force websites like Backpage.com to take a more active role in stripping out posts that suggest illegal activity, such as sex encounters with children or other trafficked persons.

“There are thousands of children out there who are waiting for our help,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Commerce Committee.

The bill cleared on a 97-2 vote and has already passed the House, so it goes straight to President Trump, who has signaled he’ll sign it.

“This bipartisan piece of legislation takes an important step forward in fighting the despicable act of human trafficking,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Despite that show of support, the administration has said it has concerns the bill could make it tougher in some cases to prosecute sex traffickers by heightening the burden of proof.

The Justice Department also said the law is flawed because it applies to offenses committed even before the law is enacted — testing the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto punishment.

“The department objects to this provision because it is unconstitutional,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote in an analysis last month as the bill was cleared through the House.

Internet-rights groups foresee a long legal battle over the law, and predicted it would change the very nature of the online world by altering long-established “safe harbor” rules that have allowed forums and social media to avoid policing all of the posts made on their platforms.

“It would scare online platforms into censoring their users,” warned Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The disagreement comes down to how the bill goes about trying to separate the “good guys” and “bad guys” online, said Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who has driven the issue from his perch as chairman of the Senate’s chief investigative subcommittee, where he pursued a groundbreaking investigation into Backpage.com.

The Arizona-based website was the country’s largest online sex-services marketplace, but faced questions about its business practices after parents said they found their runaway and missing children being sold for sex on Backpage.

Mr. Portman and Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, launched a probe that found the website was not only aware of sex trafficking, but took steps to facilitate it by deleting incriminating words suggesting children were involved and allowing those altered ads to still run.

Parents tried to sue, and prosecutors brought charges, including then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris — now a U.S. senator — who accused Backpage’s CEO and two founders of pimping because of the ads.

Those charges were tossed by a judge who said Backpage couldn’t be held responsible for the posts of others, thanks to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

“They were being protected in their bad acts by an outdated law,” Ms. McCaskill said Wednesday.

The new bill says Congress does not intend Section 230 to be a shield for unlawful prostitution or sex trafficking. It also imposes stiff new penalties on those who show “reckless disregard” for sex trafficking on their websites.

Victims could also sue for damages. The bill has the support of major tech companies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which said the law will close legal loopholes for those who knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children.

Some anti-trafficking advocates are concerned, though. They warned that pushing ads off Backpage and other organized sites could end up hurting sex workers themselves, saying the websites at least give the workers a chance to screen clients.

“I fear that it’s going to do more to take down ads than to take down traffickers,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.

He and other free speech advocates also said websites that operate as open forums, allowing users’ posts, will be scared off the Internet because they can be held liable for what’s posted on their discussion boards. He even predicted nefarious actors could attempt to post offending materials on an opponent’s website to open them up to legal challenges.

“It’s pretty ironic that a Republican Congress and a Republican president are going to create the biggest new source of opportunities for trial lawyers in decades,” Mr. Wyden said.

He tried to add $20 million in funding to the Justice Department to push more prosecutions of sex-trafficking “monsters,” but it was defeated 78-21. Opponents said they feared he was trying to derail the bill by creating a difference with the House, which would force the measure to go back to the lower chamber.

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