Tech firms change course, back Rob Portman-sponsored bill against online sex traffic

Technology companies reversed their opposition to legislation aimed at squelching the online trafficking of children and now support a Senate measure they earlier criticized as endangering freedom of expression.

The Internet Association, a trade group whose members include Google and Facebook Inc., issued a statement on Friday, Nov. 3, in support of what it called a compromise on the bill. Senators said in a statement there had been technical changes to the measure.

The bill was sparked by a fight against the website, which was accused of providing an advertising platform for teen prostitution. Critics of the measure say it would create greater liability for speech and videos posted by social media users; supporters say it makes a narrow change to deter sex traffickers only and won’t harm the internet more generally.

“I’m pleased that the industry has commendably accepted the need for legal change and accountability,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, in a statement. “Removing the unwarranted shield from legal responsibility will save countless children from horrific tragedy, both physical and emotional.”

The bill eliminates federal liability protections for websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking and allows state and local prosecutors to attack those who violate federal sex trafficking laws.

Technical and clarifying changes to the bill were filed Friday, according to an email statement from Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who leads the Commerce Committee, and Senator Bill Nelson, of Florida, the panel’s top Democrat. The committee is to vote on the bill on Nov. 8. The measure has attracted support from 37 senators, including members of both parties.

The changes “clarify” the bill and don’t change its scope, according to the senators’ statement. It said new language clarifies that the standard for liability is that websites must “knowingly” facilitate sex trafficking.

Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati Republican who sponsored the bill, said in a statement that it “will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve.”

“This bill has now achieved a broad consensus that includes law enforcement from around the country, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Urban League, and Internet Association,” Portman said.

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