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Critics of internet law amendment say measure is overly broad, counterproductive

In an effort to target a website that is accused of accounting for a high percentage of child sex trafficking reports in the United States, lawmakers are currently pushing an amendment to the Communications Decency Act known as Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The bill would allow for easier criminal prosecution of those who operate websites that have been used for sex work advertising.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was originally implemented in order to regulate pornography on the Internet. Under the law, operators of websites are protected from liability for content posted by third-party users. Under the proposed bill, though, this protection would be eliminated for websites which host advertising of “unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.” The bill would also allow state prosecutors to enforce the law against individuals and businesses that use these websites to engage in sex trafficking.

Backpage.com, the website which inspired the bill, has long been a target of law enforcement. Advocates for human trafficking victims argue that the website’s operators have knowingly allowed sex trafficking to occur via the website. The website has been able to avoid liability because of the Communications Decency Act. Last October, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was targeted with charges of pimping, and two shareholders were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, but those charges were thrown out based on federal protections.

The amendment is meant both to stop Backpage.com from facilitating human trafficking, but also to prevent similar websites from growing. Critics have raised concerns that the law is overly broad and would allow frivolous litigation against companies trying to do legitimate business, as well unfair criminal prosecution.

It remains to be seen whether the bill will gather enough support to be passed into law. In our next post, we’ll say a bit more about building a strong defense under the Communications Decency Act.

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