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Online sex trafficking bill clears House rules panel

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Online sex trafficking bill clears House rules panel

A sex trafficking bill that has divided the tech industry was cleared by the House Rules Committee on Monday, setting it up for a Tuesday floor vote.

The panel approved the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) to be considered by the House. The bill includes an amendment attached by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) that has some internet companies worried that it could erode the legal immunity they have over content posted by third-party users.

The Walters amendment attaches language from a similar Senate bill that would allow victims and prosecutors to take legal action against internet platforms for enabling sex trafficking on their sites.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the original co-sponsors of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), say the bill is necessary to crack down on bad actors online.

“We’re pleased to see that the House is moving forward with a bipartisan effort to help stop online sex trafficking, ensure justice for trafficking survivors, and hold accountable websites like Backpage.com that knowingly facilitate these criminal acts,” Portman and Blumenthal said in a statement Monday.

FOSTA had been approved by the House Judiciary Committee with significantly different language, which was praised widely among internet companies. But now that the bill is in line with SESTA, startups are concerned about the effect it will have on internet platforms.

Evan Engstrom, the executive director of the startup trade association Engine, said the bill will do little to stop sex trafficking but could hamper innovation among small companies that do business on the internet.

“Attaching SESTA to FOSTA does not add anything that will make it easier for prosecutors to stop bad actors online,” Engstrom said in a statement last week. “Rather, it merely increases the risk of unforeseen liability for startups that host user-generated content without the promise of any meaningful decrease in online sex trafficking.”

SESTA is currently awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. The House will vote on FOSTA on Tuesday.

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