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House Passes Bill To Crack Down On Online Sex Trafficking


On Capitol Hill today, the House passed a bill that aims to curb sex trafficking, specifically the online sale of women and children for sex. The bill is popular with many lawmakers, but parts of it have riled some tech companies and digital rights groups. They say the legislation is undermining the legal protections that gave us the Internet as we know it. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: About seven years ago, a group of high school students asked Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, to talk to them about human trafficking. He'd heard about the problem before. When he traveled across his state to learn about the opioid epidemic, he'd met women and girls who were survivors of trafficking, drugged by the people who had sold them for sex.

ROB PORTMAN: The more I learned about what was going on in my state and around the country, the more discouraging it got.

SELYUKH: Every year, human trafficking groups report thousands of cases - adults and children in the U.S. being forced into prostitution. To Portman, that number is growing for two main reasons.

PORTMAN: One, opioids - but two and primarily, the Internet. I would run into women and girls back home who would say, you know, it's moved from the street corner to the smartphone, and it's ruthlessly efficient.

SELYUKH: The most egregious offender is a website called Backpage which is known for its adult services ads but also as the No. 1 place to search for victims of child sex trafficking. In the past, several victims tried to sue Backpage for facilitating the crimes. But in case after case, Backpage successfully claimed immunity, and it relied on a law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law protects online platforms from liability over posts made by users.

EVAN ENGSTROM: Perhaps the most important law in the development of the Internet we have today.

SELYUKH: Evan Engstrom runs the advocacy group Engine which represents Internet startups and companies like Reddit and Pinterest. He and others in tech argue without Section 230, websites like YouTube, Facebook, Yelp would have long been sued out of existence.

ENGSTROM: It says websites should only be liable for their users' speech in very limited circumstances - if they've created the speech, if they've developed the speech.

SELYUKH: But now Congress is planning to add new circumstances when people could sue websites - for knowingly promoting or facilitating sex trafficking. Engstrom argues this could prove counterproductive. He says websites, especially small ones, might decide to not even know at all what happens on their platforms to avoid liability. Portman argues the tech industry is overreacting about the law.

PORTMAN: To the point that they weren't willing to look at the obvious problem, which is that it's been abused to sell people online.

SELYUKH: He hopes the Senate will follow the House and vote on the sex trafficking bill in the next few weeks. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.