Harris, Feinstein Back Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill After Months of Silence

Senators announce support same day tech firms end opposition to bill

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) / Getty

California Sen. Kamala Harris (D.) has announced her support for a bipartisan bill aimed at cracking down on websites that have been used for sex trafficking after months of silence on the issue and criticism from activists who questioned why she had not endorsed the measure earlier.

The senior Democratic senator from California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, also backed the measure late last week.

The swing of lawmaker support in favor of the bill came the same day tech giants, including Facebook and Google, reversed course and decided to support the legislation after vehemently opposing it for several months.

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The about face by the companies occurred late last week after Facebook, Twitter, and Google executives were grilled on Capitol Hill during hearings scrutinizing their role in allowing Russia propaganda to flow on their sites during the 2016 presidential election.

Harris and Feinstein, Democrats representing Silicon Valley, were among those lobbing tough questions at the executives during those hearings.

Harris, Feinstein, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.) issued a statement Friday announcing their strong support for the anti-sex-trafficking measure.

"Sex trafficking is a despicable crime that is too often facilitated by nefarious websites like Backpage. These companies knowingly profit off the pain of others and must be held accountable," said Harris, Feinstein and Cortez. "This legislation ensures victims receive their day in court and empowers state attorneys general to seek justice.

"We applaud the hard work of the bill’s authors and are proud to join in support," they added.

Harris's decision to announce her support for the bill, which came the same day the Internet companies changed course and publicly backed the measure, is particularly notable.

Over the past month, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog publicly criticized Harris's previous reticence on the issue.

The activists pointed out that Harris, while serving as California's attorney general, condemned Backpage.com as the "world’s top online brothel" and in 2016 brought pimping and other charges against the website.

Harris, a top contender to become the Democrats' next nominee for president, had made fighting sex trafficking one of her signature issues during her campaign for Senate last year after spending years trying to prosecute Backpage.com for what she argued was its role in knowingly facilitating child sex trafficking.

She signed a letter with 46 other state attorneys general in 2013 calling on Congress to change the laws to allow states to sue Backpage.com and other websites alleged to have knowingly advertised for and profited from the sex trafficking.

The Senate 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.), had 34 Senate cosponsors across the political spectrum, including 11 Democrats.

Before she announced her support, the activists argued that Harris appeared conflicted because the big Internet companies she represents and would need to rely on for big donations if she ran for president were so strongly opposed to the measure.

Washington 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.

Among the donations were five from top Alphabet Inc. executives, including Eric Schmidt, the company's executive chairman.

The tech companies had previously opposed the bill because they said it would hamper their abilities to operate platforms that facilitate free speech and open commerce. In recent weeks, they found themselves on the opposite side of other media conglomerates such as the Walt Disney Company and 21st Century Fox as well as tech giants Oracle and HP. Civil rights groups, such as the National Urban League, also announced their support for the bill, pointing out that sex trafficking disproportionately impacts African-Americans.

After weeks of negotiating over potential changes to the measure, the Internet Association, an Internet lobbying group whose members include Facebook, Google, Twitter among several other big tech companies, on Friday announced support for the bill.

The final version of the bill contained what its sponsors called "technical changes" that made clear that state attorneys general would need to use federal law, not state law, as the basis for their lawsuits against websites such as Backpage.com.

"This important bill will hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve," Portman said in a statement Friday.  "I'm pleased we've reached an agreement to further clarify the intent of the bill and advance this important legislation.

"This bill has now achieved a broad consensus that includes anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement from around the country, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Urban League, and the Internet Association."