back to article Congress battles Silicon Valley over upcoming US sex trafficking law

The first Congressional hearing into a proposed law that would make American companies liable for online sex trafficking has lain bare the depths of the disagreement between lawmakers and tech giants. The US Senate's commerce committee met Tuesday morning to hear from advocates and critics of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers …

  1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    Targeting

    "And while Silicon Valley and privacy advocate Senator Ron Wyden (D‑OR) argued that a better focus would be to focus on the sex traffickers themselves (rather than the online platforms they use)"

    Indeed. Lawmakers seem to veer between too-specific laws that are unusable when the technology changes and too-general laws that are abused by politicians. This seems set to be one of the former.

    Is there no happy medium ?

    1. garetht t
      Coat

      Re: Targeting

      >Is there no happy medium ?

      Mystic Meg always seemed quite chipper.

      1. Mycho Silver badge

        Re: Targeting

        Careful. Mystic Meg was part of the sex industry once upon a time.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Frivolus lawsuits

    Senator Richard Blumenthal (D‑CT) argued, "There will be no deluge of frivolous lawsuits as a result of this measure,"

    Yes, there won't possibly be a repeat of lawyers blackmailing sites by repeatedly posting content without the site operators consent then trying to have them shutdown, because this bill is was "targeted and carefully crafted."

    So carefully crafted in fact that appears to have no language or provision discussing, dealing with or preventing such problems?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Frivolus lawsuits

      "Yes, there won't possibly be a repeat of lawyers blackmailing sites by repeatedly posting content without the site operators consent then trying to have them shutdown, [...]"

      Not just lawyers. Remember the days when news groups had pr0n posted by people who objected to groups for women's issues, atheists, and naturists etc. Having posted the material they then complained to ISPs to ban the targeted group from the feeds.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    " Currently, he said, "I've got to prove that it's sex trafficking and that the defendants intentionally violated that law. [...]"

    He seems to be saying that "intent" is hard to prove - so he wants something that is a much blunter instrument. That always threatens to be open to interpretation by law enforcement agencies.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Late edit addendum:

      If they can't always prove "intent" currently - then how are they going to be sure which adverts a court would rule as using illegal trafficking? Definitely a blunt instrument of the sort that is used when circumventing another law's requirement for proving "intent".

      The same thing happened in the UK with the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The draft bill removed a superseded law's requirement of "intent" - which the police and lobby groups said had made it difficult to get convictions for indecent exposure. After protests from people like naturists the "intent" was re-instated.

      The minister promised that the Public Order Act would not be used against naturists to circumvent that SOA protection. Which was exactly what the law enforcement agencies then did...

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Intent is a real problem. As is, without the intent part of the law, the SJW's will run even more amuck anytime someone posts pictures of their kids that less than fully dressed such as at a swimming pool.

        And naturally, no one on Congress would vote against the law due to the lack of intent part as at re-election time, they'd be slammed for not being against child abuse. This law is just prime setup for long lawsuits to the Supreme Court since Congress won't take the time to get it right the first time.

        Why is it that we can't elect legislators who actually think things through and close the backdoors in the laws instead of voting a knee jerk reaction? I guess this is a rhetorical question...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    give it time

    Once this passes, wait and see. Trump will tweet something, and suddenly everyone will have cause to sue Twitter. Pass the popcorn!

  5. HungryMan

    this cant ber serious...

    we are dealing with US senators here, there is no one better qualified at picking up hookers on the internet than members of congress. Its like milk and cookies, they just go together. I cant count the number of politicians that have had sex scandals in the last 40 years. I am just surprised the other senators have not stuck a knife in this guys back yet. Et tu Rob Portman?

  6. Nick Z

    The most effective way to stop online crime is to shut down the Internet

    Freedom of speech and communication means freedom to use it in both good and bad ways.

    Freedom is always like this. It's not possible to make it only one way. If you make it one way, then it's not freedom anymore.

    It's possible to reduce crime by restricting everyone's rights and freedoms. But this in itself is a crime against democracy. Two wrongs don't make a right.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

      Agreed. But spouting clichés does not improve things either.

      So, what's your solution to keep young women from being bought, abused and murdered ?

      Got a better idea ?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

        So, what's your solution to keep young women from being bought, abused and murdered ?

        What did we do before Facebook - Policing ?

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

      3. Nick Z

        Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

        The solution to keep young women from being bought and abused is the same as before the Internet came into existence. It's looking for people who commit crimes and putting them on trial.

        Freedom of speech and communication is a basic human right. And by itself it doesn't cause any direct harm, unless it's used for defamation or to cause panic.

        Of course, you can extrapolate indirect harm, that's twice or thrice removed from various things people say. And you can use this reasoning to restrict the freedom of speech.

        But if you go down this path, then you can end up without any freedoms and rights. Everything can become a privilege doled out by a dictatorial government. Because there are so many indirect consequences from everything people say and do, that you can reason away every freedom and right.

        For example, disagreeing with the government or the majority in society can be seen as harming social harmony. And the government can prohibit it on this basis. And this is just one of many possible examples.

      4. Mephistro Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right." tl;dr.

        "So, what's your solution to keep young women from being bought, abused and murdered ?"

        I'd propose this:

        10 Keep the site working under LEAs control for a certain period of time (a short period, a week or two at most).

        20 Identify both sellers and buyers. There are tools that will identify a perv's IP and even pwn his devices.

        30 If there is a suspicion that the life of one of the victims may be in immediate danger, rescue her or him immediately.

        40 At the end of the intended period, do a massive sweep, save the victims and catch hundreds of criminals. Send them in for many decades/forever.

        50 Keep the site working and you'll be able to catch even more criminals.

        60 At the same time, many buyers and sellers that suspect the site is compromised will find a new website to do their business. Infiltrate and control said site. Or even create it yourself.

        70 GOTO 10

        I'd be very surprised if this method -that I didn't invent, as it has been used already in the Silk Road case- didn't produce a crop or two of hundreds of dangerous criminals every year.

        Every criminal retired from the streets would probably save several victims in the near future. This is specially true for the sellers (or pimps) and the for craziest buyers.

        I understand that with such an emotional issue, the "kill everything with fire" approach comes instinctively, but in this context it's not efficient at all for saving the victims and preventing more crimes.

        Amongst other reasons, if you close all of these sites, the criminals will communicate by other means, as they did in the mythical times before the Internet. They'll go dark and the only way to identify and arrest the criminals will be through physically infiltrating their cells.

        Another problem with making this kind of sites disappear is that said sites could operate from countries where American Laws don't apply (snark). Blocking the server's DNS would take the site down in the USA for a few hours, until the owners obtain a new DNS or proxy and distribute that new DNS using steganography or code words in some public forum or another.

        A particularly nasty issue with this law is that it'd seem that nobody has bothered to precisely define the term "Sex Trafficking" ans include said definition in the law. Actually this part means that the law will be used and abused to put pressure on companies and individuals. As has been pointed out by fellow commentards, this would allow TPTB to have an absolute control over freedom of speech in the Internet.

        If adult voluntary prostitution is included in the definition then all this law will do is harm the true victims, the prostitutes.

        Thanks for you attention, sorry for this brick of a comment.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right." tl;dr.

          @Mephistro, thank you for being one of the few to show up the real weakness and propose a way of correcting the failure of the draft law. The absence of a clause to precisely define the term "Sex Trafficking" is a serious error and does leave the door open to the opponents. Are some of them in favour of sex trafficking? If so on what grounds, free speech, or the return of slavery, (which never really went away anyway)?

          1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

            Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right." tl;dr.

            I look forward to a law that forces Donald Trump to stop tweeting and maybe also deports his wife, not particularly because justice would be served but only because it would be funny to hear about.

        2. John G Imrie Silver badge

          Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right." tl;dr.

          The definition of Sex Trafficking in the UK is so broad that it includes a French woman and her Escort coming to London for the night.

      5. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

        "So, what's your solution to keep young women from being bought, abused and murdered ?"

        The advertising was at best a very small part of this. Prostituition will always exist, unfortunaetly underage prostitution will always exist. Prostitutes are in a very vulnerable and dangerous position and some will partly as a result be killed. However responsibility is firstly the murderers and if the girl is coerced into prostitution to a lesser extent the pimps. The advertiser is almost irrelevant and if web based advertising was made hard/illegal it would not stop prostitution.

        The best protetcion for prostitutes in general would be legalisation but even with this I am sure there would be some underage illegal activity although I believe substantially less.

        In the Yvvone Ambrose case why concentrate on the advertising instead of why an underage girl was working as a prostitute in the first place?

        The backpage managers may well be scum but a convenient diversion from taking measure sthat woudl actually address the underlying problem.

        1. wayward4now
          Unhappy

          Re: "Two wrongs don't make a right."

          Why is no one proposing a law to convict bad parents?? Strange that the Mom wants to sue, to "do something about it", while she didn't give a hoot in hell before to allow her daughter to live with Grandma who cared even less.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: The most effective way to stop online crime is to shut down the Internet

      That's just silly - it's like saying that the best way to reduce school shootings is to ban children from taking guns to school.

  7. The Nazz Silver badge

    Nothing will change until this is changed ...

    General counsel of the Internet Association, Abigail Slater.

    "We would support a specific amendment that would allow victims to sue for civil penalties in court to seek some form of redress for the horrible things that have happened to them," she proposed.

    Fucking typical, more civil cases more revenue for all lawyers (except maybe the truly incompetent).

    With due respect to those involved, just how the fuck would DR be supposed to sue and gain redress?

    With attitudes like AS, make no wonder the authorities have failed to progress. Support, nay instigate, criminal law now.

    Would a local, or indeed national, newspaper get away with carrying the same ads?

    And as for free speech, and other amendment "rights", if it's not acceptable to falsely shout "Fire" in a cinema then it's equally unacceptable to "sell human beings".

    That said, there came a time when i'd gladly have PAID someone to take the ex away. Thankfully some lucky guy ( cueing Shel Silverstein's The Winner) did.

    1. dan1980

      Re: Nothing will change until this is changed ...

      @The Nazz

      'And as for free speech, and other amendment "rights", if it's not acceptable to falsely shout "Fire" in a cinema . . . .'

      Setting aside the rest of your comment - which I admit I don't fully understand - the above statement is just not correct.

      Well, it depends on what you mean by 'acceptable', of course. If you mean that to do so is stupid and irresponsible and therefore not acceptable socially then sure. But if you mean that it is not acceptable legally then you are misinformed - at least so far as the US Constitution is concerned. (The situation is different elsewhere but this story is about the US.)

      The simple fact is that yelling 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre most assuredly is protected speech. Moreover, much speech that is far more inflammatory is also protected.

      Indeed, the only speech that is excluded from the protections of the First Ammendement is such speech as is both intended and likely to cause imminent criminal action.

      How that fits into your argument is another matter - I just wanted to clear up this point as it is repeated far too often.

      1. MrZoolook
        Meh

        Re: Nothing will change until this is changed ...

        "The simple fact is that yelling 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre most assuredly is protected speech."

        I understand this is conceptually theoretical, but I'm pretty sure if you cause panic in a public place (and potential harm to others) by falsely and knowingly yelling "FIRE!", the free speech protection no longer applies.

        At least, that's according to:

        http://civil-liberties.yoexpert.com/civil-liberties-general/is-it-legal-to-shout-%22fire%22-in-a-crowded-theater-19421.html

        "if a court can prove that you incite imminent lawlessness by falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, it can convict you."

        and

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/11/shouting-fire-in-a-crowded-theater/?utm_term=.dc95acb0effe

        "And in fact the line from Justice Holmes in Schenck v. United States is "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.'"

        and

        http://www.theblaze.com/contributions/debunking-another-first-amendment-myth-2/

        "In that situation, you aren’t being punished for your speech; but for creating a commotion that violated the rights of other people."

        and

        https://criminal.lawyers.com/types-of-crimes/crimes-against-public-safety.html

        "The most commonly used example of disorderly conduct is yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater when you know there is no such threat. Because people in the theater can suffer injuries as they trample over one another to escape, the criminal charges can be pretty serious."

        Granted, any punishment is for public disorderly conduct, or endangering life, etc... but if the right to falsely yell "FIRE!" was protected, you would assumedly be immune from any prosecution.

  8. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Congress Critters

    The bill is almost certainly an overreaction by Congress Critters. I wonder if there isn't some laws or case law regarding the responsibility of print media in regards to accepting and policing classified ads. This would seem to be the most directly applicable area. If the Congress Critters would on focus on the problematic area, which appears to the online classified ads, they might accidentally find an appropriate solution.

    Also, could some of these sites be sued as accessories to a felony in civil court (some states allow these types of suits). My impression is Backpage is the Gawker of the internet classifieds and that could leave them open to this type of suit. I think many were surprised when Hulk Hogan (with help) took down Gawker.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    replace "sex traffic" with "gun smuggling"

    and I guarantee you there suddenly is found a TON of support. even with everything else being verbatim and equal.

    No slippery slope arguments, no handwringing about abuse by lawyers, but solid, instant agreement and action by those most "concerned" about the potential legislation

    Because some crimes just fit in with what Silicon Valley types enjoy, and others threaten their position.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: replace "sex traffic" with "gun smuggling"

      and I guarantee you there suddenly is found a TON of support. even with everything else being verbatim and equal.

      In the U.S? Where Gun regulation is a hard pill to force down in Bill form?

      Yes, sure, you might get more Silicon Valley support, but other parts of the country would go Ballistic, force the issue and you might even kick off a second civil war.

  10. dan1980

    ". . . would make an exception to the blanket protection given to online platforms over what their users get up to.

    You CAN'T just carve out a single exception because that's not how a blanket protection works - it's all or nothing.

    The protection exists because the platforms can't be expected to monitor and police the actions of the users. If you make an 'exception' then what you are really doing is saying that the platforms MUST monitor and police the actions and content of the users and once this is being done, the entire justification for the 'blanket protection' disintegrates.

    If a platform must have monitoring in place to detect content and communications that are involved in sex trafficking, then why can't that be used to detect and police communications involved in drug dealing? Or copyright infringement? Or libel?

    Take an analogy such as, say, a car hire company.

    Car hire companies are, obviously, not held responsible if someone hires one of their cars and uses it in a sex trafficking operation because, beyond asking for agreement to standard terms, they don't concern themselves with what the car is used for.

    This proposed law is not meaningfully different than expecting a car hire company to identify just such a situation. They would need to implement more technology to do so - such as cameras and microphones in all vehicles - but the end result is the same: you now have a situation where the service provider is expected to monitor and know how their service is being used and to police whichever actions they are told to.

    Or what about hotels - should they be forced to monitor what occurs inside their rooms to prevent sex trafficking?

    Saying that this would reduce instances of the targeted crime and lead to prosecutions is well and good but the question is: which freedoms and protections are you willing to destroy to achieve that end?

    Again, the very basis of the 'blanket protection' is that the platform providers don't - and can't be reasonably expected to - monitor and identify the activity of users. Once that is gone, how can the protection remain?

  11. HildyJ
    Thumb Down

    USPS

    Sex trafficking existed before the Internet so I would ask:

    Should victims be allowed to sue the Postal Service?

  12. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    In short, remove Backpage from the picture

    In short, remove Backpage from the picture

    In short, a new one will appear.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't think this comes down to free speech, it boils down to the fact of should content providers be obliged to monitor their users content though if you make them liable then they are likely to remove the platform of free speech.

    If I own an exhibition hall and I allow a convention of people traffickers to use my hall and commit crimes am I liable for their actions?

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Old rule of legal thumb. Bad cases make bad laws.

    This is the classic "Something MUST be done" of lawmakers when something too obvious turns up.

    Freedom of speech is not just for people saying nice things

    Something the operators of Backpage seem to understand but the "Honorable Ladies & Gentlemen" of the Con-gress mostly don't.

    Off the top of my head I believe this young women's case comes under the Mann Act (transport across interstate lines for immoral purposes. AFAIK that's still on the books). Kidnapping, False Imprisonment and of course Murder. No new law needed. So WFT were LEO's doing while this was happening?

    OTOH if this young woman fell for a line from here "boyfriend" and willingly co-operated, despite all attempts to tell her he was a known scumbag then this is basically a case of death by stupidity.

    And if making stupid decisions was a crime I think you could lock up the whole Con-gress, for their frequent impersonations of badly behaved children in a playground.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Lions and Tigers and Sex Trafficking - OH MY

    Just what problem are they trying to fix?

    There are trafficking convictions in the USA but the definition of sex trafficking is, shall we say, flexible.

    There have even been cases of (legal age) women being charged with trafficking themselves. Whenever some local police chief wants to 'arrest him some hos' he announces a crackdown on sex trafficking.

    Whenever the local cops are feeling their oats the 'go undercover' in the local massage parlor.

    Any underage prostitute (even if by days) is defined as trafficked - no third party required.

    This means that all stats given cannot be believed. There may be 5-10 genuine cases per year if that, but the figures are deliberately inflated.

    Why is this? Well because SEX, the majority of USA have a very puritan attitude to sexuality. Add in THINK OF THE CHILDREN and you can control consensual adult sex as well.

    There is a major problem with human trafficking in the USA, they just send them back to Mexico after harvest. So no problem right?.

  16. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    On a personal note. Buying a girl outright to abuse and murder is a real thing in the US.

    As opposed to say, a plot device on a fantasy fiction site.

    Who knew?

    Because IRL most people would expect most people doing so to come to the attention of the cops and be arrested for y'know, all of the above crimes (kidnapping, false imprisonment etc) and probably a few more besides (is slavery an actual crime in the US?).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: On a personal note. Buying a girl outright to abuse and murder is a real thing in the US.

      *cough*Rotherham*cough*

      The US isn't the only place in the world that has problems with sex trafficking. Let's dial the sanctimonious preening back a notch or two.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
        Unhappy

        *cough*Rotherham*cough*

        And I'd ask the same question.

        What the f**k were the cops doing?

        I may be a little behind the times but the last time I checked a middle aged man f**king a 13YO girl is still illegal in the UK.

        Or did they repeal the consent law back to that in the 1870's?

    2. Old Handle
      FAIL

      No of course it's not a real thing!

      Here's what really happened. A teenager ran away from home, stayed with her grandparents for a while, and somewhere along the line decided to make some money as a prostitute. Possibly with help from others, she posted an ad on Backpage. Tragically one of her customers proved unstable and murdered her.

      There was zero people-purchasing involved.

  17. tiggity Silver badge

    Out in the open

    If Backpage is a known site for such activities then surely it's in the interests of law enforcement that such activities stay there "in plain sight", rather than go to a "dark" zone where finding out what is occurring and tracking the users is far more difficult than in a site "out in the open".

    Law enforcement then have easily accessible information on potential crimes which they can investigate and, if they find trafficking has occurred, hopefully catch some criminals.

    Surely if ads no longer on Backpage (& only avaialble via dark web), any potential evidence is harder to get at and far less crims caught

    1. Justicesays

      Re: Out in the open

      Part of the issue is that Backpage apparently go out of their way to assist/advise their advertisers on how to stay anonymous, what terms to use to discreetly advertise their illegal services, steps to take for safe contact with potential customers etc.

      Despite this they still have managed to wriggle out of any responsibility for what is happening on their site.

    2. handleoclast Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: Out in the open

      I find myself wondering why anybody would want to shut down back page when it's encouraging criminals to give themselves away to LEO. They're saying "Here I am, arrest me for all the things I'm doing that are already serious crimes." Sure, they're the stupid ones, but they still commit nasty crimes and need to be stopped. And they may have connections to some of those smart enough not to use backpage. Keeping it open makes it easy to find these scumbags and take them down.

      Tin foil helmet time...

      Suppose that you were a politician with a predilection for under-age sex slaves.

      Suppose that you don't use backpage yourself, but you know others IRL who share your tastes and who do use backpage.

      Suppose that you realize that those others are drawing attention to themselves by using backpage, may be picked up by LEO, and may divulge your name in an attempt at a plea-bargain.

      In that case it would be in your interest to get backpage shut down and the whole mess swept under the carpet of the dark web.

      Nah, that's too silly to believe. It's far more likely that the politicians are too stupid to understand why it's a stupid idea. Or they know it;'s a stupid idea but also know it will get them a lot of votes from people who are too thick to realize it's a stupid idea.

      Then again, Dennis Hastert (or Cyril Smith, on this side of the pond)...

    3. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Out in the open

      Surely if ads no longer on Backpage (& only avaialble via dark web), any potential evidence is harder to get at and far less crims caught

      I think from the cops' and possibly Congressional perspective this is good. If they can't find the crime, then it's not happening.

  18. Cynical Observer

    Is this correctly focussed?

    The EFF (normally quite highly regarded) would argue that it is not.

    If SESTA becomes law, it will place that very burden on intermediaries. Although large intermediaries may have the resources to take on this monumental task, small startups don’t. Internet startups—a major growth engine in today’s economy—would become much more dangerous investments. Web platforms run by nonprofit and community groups, which serve as invaluable outlets for free expression and knowledge sharing, would be equally at risk.

    Full article here.

    I think few would argue that there is a problem to be resolved but this may not be the correct approach.

  19. This post has been deleted by its author

  20. Adrian Midgley 1

    Tricky to do that without

    making telephone companies liable for conversations on the telephone.

  21. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Coat

    But all pimps, data and RL, understand the basics of pimpology

    1) A certain proportion of their customers will damage (or possibly destroy) their "stock."

    2)They will have to devote a certain amount of time and effort to restoring it, or replacing it, if they want to keep their revue stream flowing at the level they expect ('cause living like a pimp is expensive).

    3)Fortunately there is an inexhaustible supply of fresh meat offering itself up (as pimps see it) to be turned out.

    That's as true for Google/Apple/Microsoft/Amazon/Facebook (or GAMAF for short) as it is for Joseph Hazley (Robinson's alleged pimp).

    Remember "You can't have a conscience in the pimp game" is as true for corporate data pimps as the "independent operator" and the corporations understand that well.

    Now I've got to go as I'm late for a fitting of my new Eel skin boots.

  22. Old Handle
    Facepalm

    It's very disheartening that the sex trafficking myth has been allowed to get so big as to threaten the entire internet. Even The Register seems to buy into it by shirking their journalistic duty and reporting the delusions of this dead girl's estranged family as fact. It's almost certain that she was never kidnapped or "bought". She ran away from home and stayed with her grandparents for a while, that much is known for sure. Then something tragic happened and she was murdered.

    But that story doesn't sell books and laws, "sex trafficking" does. Why let truth get in the way of a good opportunity to sew fear in the public and reap financial and political gain?

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