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Senate approves controversial online sex trafficking bill

Bill is intended is to curb online sex trafficking by holding website operators more accountable for their users' activities.

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The Senate passed a bill Wednesday designed to curb online sex trafficking by holding website operators more accountable for their users' activities.

James Martin/CNET

The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a controversial online sex trafficking bill, despite objections by some in the tech industry.

The legislation, known as Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), was approved by a 97-2 vote. It's intended to curb online sex trafficking by holding website operators more accountable for their users' activities.

"Today's vote is a victory for trafficking survivors and a victory for our efforts to help stop the selling of women and children online," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the bill's authors, said in a statement.  "No one thought that we could get this done, but with the commitment of an overwhelming group of bipartisan colleagues and a broad-based coalition of support, we were able to pass legislation that will ensure justice for trafficking victims and help us combat this evil crime."

The bill would give sex-trafficking victims more power to sue websites that knowingly support sex trafficking. Supporters say the legislation will help curb the growing epidemic of online sex trafficking that often involves children, while opponents argue it could expose tech companies to costly lawsuits and infringe on free speech.

The legislation amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from 1996, which many online platforms saw as a vital protection from liability for content posted by their users. The legislation makes it a crime to operate an internet platform with the intent of promoting prostitution.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a similar bill last month.

The bills arose to combat online sex trafficking often perpetuated though sites like Backpage.com, which has classified advertising where people can solicit prostitutes. Many of the people on this website are trafficked women and children, according to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the bill, saying it would make sites responsible for their users' speech and behavior in addition to their own.

"Facing the threat of extreme criminal and civil penalties, web platforms large and small would have little choice but to silence legitimate voices," the EFF warned last month. "Platforms would have to take extreme measures to remove a wide range of postings, especially those related to sex."

Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, who along with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul cast the only votes against the bill, said he feared the legislation was destined to fail.

"In the absence of Section 230, the internet as we know it would shrivel," Wyden said on the Senate floor before the vote. "Only the platforms run by those with deep pockets, and an even deeper bench of lawyers, would be able to make it."

Several major internet companies were initially reluctant to weaken the legal protections against liabilities for the activities of their users. But the Internet Association, which represents companies including Google and Facebook, threw its support behind the bill in November.

"To the websites that for years have hidden behind Section 230 and profited from the sale of vulnerable women and children, know that your time has run out," Lauren Hersh, national director and co-founder of the anti-human trafficking movement World Without Exploitation, said in a statement. "Today, we celebrate not simply a legislative victory, but a significant change in our response to sexual exploitation."

The bill requires the signature of President Donald Trump before it becomes law.

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