A dispute over how to deter a flourishing online sex trade is likely to escalate into a high-profile policy battle in 2018, adding to political headaches for big tech, reports the Wall Street Journal. Lawmakers for months have been working on ways to address the issue, which has its roots in a 1990s law that gives websites and other online businesses broad legal immunity for activity of their users. The law has provided legal cover for adult classified-ad sites such as Backpage.com to develop into big businesses, shielding them from lawsuits by victims as well as prosecution and other actions by local authorities. Rival House and Senate committees are approaching the problem in sharply different ways, the former developed with major input from tech firms, and the latter favored by advocates for victims of sex-trafficking, such as the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The contrasting approaches draw tech companies into a battle over an issue on which they have had to tread carefully. While the industry wants to play a role in combating sex trafficking, big tech companies like Google and Facebook could lose the broad legal immunity granted to online businesses under federal law. The chief industry lobbying organization, the internet Association, currently says it supports both the House and Senate approaches. Google didn’t comment, and Facebook pointed to a recent blog post by its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, endorsing the Senate measure. But many on both sides of the issue believe the industry prefers the House approach to the Senate, and, more generally, is in no rush to make any changes to current law.