The House on Tuesday passed an online sex trafficking bill in a broad, bipartisan vote that many in the tech industry worry could undermine legal protections afforded to internet platforms.
The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), introduced by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), was approved in a 388-25 vote, earning majorities in both parties. It will make it easier for websites to be targeted with legal action for enabling sex trafficking.
“FOSTA will produce prosecutions of bad actor websites, convictions, and put predators behind bars,” Wagner said in a statement. “It will give victims a pathway to justice and provide a meaningful criminal deterrent, so that fewer businesses will ever enter the sex trade, and fewer victims will ever be sold.”
But the legislation has also worried internet companies and advocacy groups over what it might mean for free speech online. The bill would cut into the legal immunity that internet platforms enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from legal liability for content posted by third-parties.
If it became law, the sex trafficking legislation would be the first major policy blow in the growing movement among lawmakers to challenge tech giants.
Wagner’s bill has been revised multiple times during its road to passage.
The bill was originally introduced with language that worried the tech world, only to later emerge from the House Judiciary Committee with compromises that won over many of its current detractors. On Tuesday, however, the bill was approved with attached language aligning it with a Senate companion — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) — which critics say will erode what they see as the bedrock law for internet speech.
The House voted overwhelmingly to attach the SESTA language, offered as an amendment from Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.).
The main concern for groups like Engine, a trade association for internet startups, is that the bill will hamper innovation by forcing smaller web companies to devote too many resources to monitoring content for which they should not be held liable. They also worry that the measure will not do enough to actually crack down on online sex trafficking.
“FOSTA was a carefully crafted and thoughtful piece of legislation that holds bad actors accountable,” Evan Engstrom, Engine’s executive director, said in a statement. “Congress had the chance to pass a good bill that helps law enforcement go after bad actors and protects the startups who are working in good faith to crack down on sex trafficking content on their platforms. Instead, lawmakers rushed through a flawed proposal without fully considering the consequences.”
But the bill has also created some divisions. Facebook had endorsed the latest additions to the bill, going against many of its fellow Silicon Valley giants. And some tech companies have been quiet on the issue, hoping to stay out of the spotlight in such an uncomfortable debate. Meanwhile, other tech sectors that have long been at odds with the major internet platforms have been pushing for the tougher language. IBM, Hewlett Packard and Oracle sent a letter to House leadership earlier Tuesday urging the bill’s passage with the Senate language attached. “As responsible U.S. technology companies, we support limited, controlled exceptions to the [Communications Decency Act] immunity provision that will help policymakers, law enforcement, and victims combat this kind of illicit and criminal activity on the Internet,” the companies wrote. SESTA, the Senate companion bill, has received committee approval and is awaiting a floor vote. It currently has a veto-proof number of co-sponsors. Updated: 6:30 p.m.