Despite Sen. Kamala Harris's crusade against outlets that allow advertisements for underage trafficking, the California Democrat has resisted publicly commenting or signing onto bipartisan legislation that would allow families of victims and states to sue Backpage.com and other websites.
Harris, while serving as California's attorney general, condemned Backpage.com as "the world’s top online brothel" in 2016, bringing pimping and other charges against the website, which she and other lawmakers have accused of knowingly facilitating child sex trafficking.
Harris made fighting sex-trafficking one of her signature issues during her campaign for Senate last year, and she has long targeted Backpage.com as a main culprit. She signed a letter with 46 other state attorneys general in 2013 calling on Congress to give states the ability to sue Backpage.com and any other websites that allegedly knowingly advertised for and profited from the sex trafficking.
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However, Harris's bid to "be a power broker has her walking a delicate political tightrope" on the sex-trafficking issue and a bill to combat it, McClatchy recently reported.
The bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), would bring about some of the very changes to the law Harris asked Congress to impose when she was attorney general.
The bipartisan legislation, authored by Sens. Rob Portman, (R., Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal, (D., Conn.) has 34 senate cosponsors across the political spectrum, including 11 Democrats.
Those formally backing the bill include GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah on the right, and Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois on the left.
Harris, on the other hand, has yet to announce support for, or opposition to, the bill.
"Anyone who has her visibility on an issue such as Backpage.com and is not signed onto the bill—people are just puzzled, and it doesn’t look good for her," Lisa Thompson, vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told the Washington Free Beacon.
Other activists and backers of the bill say Harris is having a hard time squaring her prior crusade against Backpage.com with her job representing Google, Facebook and other powerful Silicon Valley forces as a senator from California. Google, Facebook, and other sites are vehemently against the Portman-Blumenthal bill and another version wending its way through the House.
"Harris has a bit of a split personality," said Jamie Court, president of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. "She really was a dogged advocate for these families of victims when she was attorney general."
It is easy to go after the owners of Backpage.com, whom Court described as three millionaires who have profited from "despicable acts on the Internet."
"It’s a whole different thing to go up against a company that you can't avoid on the Internet who also are formidable Democratic donors whose politics, other than this, probably largely match your own," he said.
A Free Beacon analysis of Federal Election Commission fundraising records for Harris's Senate race, found a total of $71,500 in donations from 54 different employees of either Google, or its parent company, Alphabet, Inc.
The donations include five from top Alphabet Inc. executives, including Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman.
Harris received a total of $213,341 from the tech sector, ranking her No. 4 in highest donations after only Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D., N.Y.), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Internet sector doled out more than $4 million for Clinton's failed presidential run, demonstrating the powerful role it plays in Democratic presidential primary politics.
Harris's office did not return a request for comment for the story.
Proponents of the bill point to an elaborate, deep-pocketed Google-funded campaign against the SESTA bill. Two Google-funded groups, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), have aggressively fought the bill.
Prosecutors and individuals should not be allowed to sue websites for users' activity on it, opponents of the bill argue. In several cases, including Harris's prosecutions of Backpage.com, judges have thrown out "pimping" and other charges against the owners, citing federal communications law.
Senators invited Google officials to testify at a September Commerce Committee hearing, but company representatives declined. Instead, former Rep. Susan Molinari, (R., N.Y.), who now serves as the search engine's vice president of public policy, issued a statement on the topic.
Google emailed a statement to the Free Beacon on Friday in response to a question on whether its executives would continue donating to Harris if she signs onto the bill.
"We have a long-standing commitment to eradicating human trafficking and have proposed language amending section 230 that would give victims and survivors the right to civil litigation and enable prosecutors to hold bad actors accountable for their crimes," Molinari said in the statement.
"This proposal has received a lot of support, and we’ll continue to engage members of Congress, anti-trafficking groups and the industry to try to get a resolution," she added.
The families of trafficking victims and states have lost nearly two dozen cases against Backpage.com over the last several years.
The SESTA bill aims to change that by altering a clause in the 1996 Communications Decency act, which provides website operators partial immunity from lawsuits involving solely the activity of users, not the owners of the websites themselves.
Portman, Blumenthal, and other advocates argue Backpage.com’s owners should have some liability, and have accused the owners of the website of hiring a company located in the Philippines to lure advertisers and customers looking for sex.
Thompson, Court, and other proponents of the bill say they believe Harris is now working to try to write amendments to find some middle ground, although they have yet to see the details.
The activists are concerned about any effort to water down the Senate bill, which they say is already weaker than the House version.
"We don’t want a toothless bill—we don’t want the tech sector to be exerting enough influence to defang the bill," she said. "That’s the concern."