House Passes Online Sex Trafficking Bill Over DOJ Objections

By Naomi Nix and Ben Brody VIA Bloomberg Politics

The House passed legislation on Tuesday intended to curb online sex trafficking, hours after the Justice Department objected that part of the measure may be unconstitutional.

The 388-25 vote came hours after Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte in a letter that provisions in the measure could make it harder to prosecute sex trafficking crimes.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican, said in a statement that passage of the bill,“sent a clear message to trafficking victims: you are not alone, and justice is no longer out of reach.”

The legislation would make it a crime to operate a facility such as an internet platform with the intent to promote prostitution. The measure includes an amendment passed Tuesday that would narrow liability protections for websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.

President Donald Trump "applauds the House of Representatives for its work," the White House said in a statement on Thursday evening.

"This bipartisan piece of legislation provides important tools for federal prosecutors and state officials to fight the scourge of sex trafficking," the White House said. "The administration remains concerned about certain provisions in the bill, as expressed" by the Justice Department "and hopes that these issues can be resolved in a final bill presented to the president for signature," the statement added.

Boyd said in his letter that while the legislation was “well intentioned,” the current version would unconstitutionally impose punishments on acts that were not punishable at the time they were committed.

“We would welcome the opportunity to work with Congress to address this serious constitutional concern,” Boyd wrote.

Some technology advocates have argued the bill could cause trouble for internet platforms that try unsuccessfully to combat sex trafficking because their efforts might demonstrate knowledge of the acts.

Despite the industry’s initial concernsFacebook Inc. and the trade group Internet Association, which represents Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, supported the legislation.

“The internet industry is committed to ending trafficking online,” Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman said in a statement. “We share this goal with lawmakers who are looking to stop bad actors.”

The bill contains an exception for places where prostitution is legal.

‘Heinous Crime’

Evan Engstrom, executive director of the San Francisco-based startup advocacy group Engine, had urged the House to reconsider its plan to vote on Tuesday because of the concerns raised by the Justice Department.

After the bill passed he said in a statement that "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," Engstrom added, "lawmakers rushed through a flawed proposal without fully considering the consequences.

A similar bill has been proposed in the Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Rob Portman. Kevin Smith, Portman’s deputy chief of staff, said in a statement the lawmakers have long been aware of the Justice Department’s concerns but disagree with the analysis.

The House and Senate bills arose from accusations that Backpage.com provided an advertising platform for teen prostitution. The site argued it was protected by a 1996 law that relieved online platforms of responsibility for content posted by third parties.

— With assistance by Justin Sink, and Yueqi Yang

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