WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, TechFreedom sent a letter to Senate leadership expressing deep concerns over reports that the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 will be attached to an unrelated, must-pass defense bill. The letter urges Congress not to move this legislation without the careful consideration provided by standard committee process.

If enacted, the bill would expand criminal liability for websites regarding illegal sex trafficking on their sites, and amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to allow state prosecutors and civil plaintiffs to take action against website operators.

Backpage, and sites like it, should absolutely be brought to justice — as current law already allows,” said Berin Szóka, President of TechFreedom. “Section 230’s immunity already explicitly excludes federal criminal law, so there is nothing to stop federal prosecution of sites like Backpage today. Indeed, DOJ has already convened a grand jury investigation of the site’s founders, whose lawyers expect their clients to be indicted imminently. Moreover, Section 230 does allow state criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits against sites that join users in ‘developing’ illegal content, in whole or in part. The Washington Supreme Court has allowed a civil suit against Backpage to proceed. Trial begins October 9. In other words, it would be a mistake to assume that Section 230 will shield Backpage.”

An appendix to TechFreedom’s letter summarizes the case law surrounding Section 230 and website liability and discusses alternatives for achieving SESTA’s goal without its unintended consequences. As the letter states:

We do not treat Section 230 as sacrosanct. We are open to a careful reassessment of the statute. But the rush to pass legislation as far-reaching as SESTA without a clear record of (a) how the bill would work or (b) what state prosecutions and civil suits are possible under current 230 case law understandably stokes the worst fears of Section 230 absolutists: that any amendment of the statute will wreak havoc on the Internet.

“Sex trafficking is a horrific crime that merits a serious, thoughtful approach from Congress,” concluded Szóka. “Clarifying how Section 230 works may well be appropriate. But SESTA would have far-reaching implications for the Internet well beyond the issue at hand — and it would make some website operators less willing to police user content. Rushing to legislate could actually harm victims. Attaching this provision to a must-pass defense bill without a full hearing would be a historic mistake. We implore the Senate to resist such a legislative shortcut. Instead, lawmakers should follow standard committee process to carefully examine not only SESTA, but how the ‘development’ standard in Section 230 currently works, and how it should work moving forward. We stand ready to help find a workable solution.”

Seventeen business, media and technology groups have expressed their concerns over SESTA, including Charles Koch Institute, ALEC, US Chamber, Heritage Action, Freedomworks and Consumer Technology Association.


We can be reached for comment at media@techfreedom.org. See our other work on fighting sex trafficking online, including:

  • Tech Policy Podcast #189: Fighting Online Sex Trafficking
  • Our infographic and explainer on CDA Section 230 and immunity for online intermediaries
  • Our coalition letter on SESTA “Weakening Section 230 Won’t Prevent Sex Trafficking”