Sen. Harris Quiet as Civil Rights Group Throws Support Behind Anti-Sex-Trafficking Bill

Critics argue Harris doesn’t want to alienate Silicon Valley and Google, in particular

Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris / Getty Images
October 20, 2017

The National Urban League has thrown its weight behind a bill aimed at fighting online sex-trafficking, putting more pressure on Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) to take a public stand on the bill.

The NUL, a civil rights group that advocates on behalf of African-Americans, said sex trafficking disproportionately impacts minorities—and African-Americans in particular—and argues the bipartisan measure is long overdue, in a letter addressed to Senate leaders.

"The National Urban League supports this effort to stop sex trafficking due to the disproportionate impact sex trafficking has on people of color," Marc Morial, the League's president and CEO, wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) on Wednesday.

The NUL quoted FBI statistics showing nearly 60 percent of arrests involving underage victims of sex trafficking are African-American and Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 40 percent of all victims of sex trafficking were African-American between 2008 and 2010.

Public-safety activists who back the sex-trafficking bill have questioned why Harris has so far resisted publicly commenting or signing onto the measure.

Authored by Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), the bill has 36 sponsors, including 11 Democrats.

Proponents are particularly perplexed about Harris's reticence because she was a vocal advocate for even stronger Congressional action to target websites that allow underage trafficking and campaigned for Senate on her repeated attempts to prosecute while state attorney general. Last year she labeled "the world's top online brothel."

Harris's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The activists and backers of the bill argue that Harris is having a hard time squaring her prior crusade against with her job representing Google, Facebook, and other powerful Silicon Valley interests as a senator from California.

Google, Facebook, and have been working together to oppose the bill and have funded an elaborate campaign against it, according to the bill's supporters.

Harris raked in $71,500 donations from Google employees during her Senate race, according to a Washington Free Beacon analysis of her donations.

Harris, who is widely discussed as a leading contender for the next Democratic presidential nomination, could use the financial support of Google and other Silicon Valley players for a nationwide run. The internet sector doled out more than $4 million for Hillary Clinton's failed presidential run, according to the Center for Responsive politics.

She is reportedly working with Google behind the scenes to craft an amendment that can serve as a compromise.

Google last week told the Washington Free Beacon that it has "a long-standing commitment to eradicating human trafficking" and has proposed an amendment that would "give victims and survivors the right to civil litigation and enable prosecutors to hold bad actors accountable for their crimes."

Lisa Thompson, the vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, has said she and other activists are concerned about any attempts to water down the Senate bill because she says it's already weaker than a House version.

The R Street Institute, a free market think-tank that has received funds from Google, late last week released a statement praising Harris for seeking a "middle-ground."

"It's unclear what exact middle ground Harris is seeking, but there's certainly nothing wrong with her listening to Bay Area tech firms on an issue that intimately involves them–and us," the group said. "Sure, Harris seems to have changed her position from her days as attorney general, when she filed pimping charges against [Backpage's] operator."

"A judge later tossed those charges for many of the same reasons free-speech advocates oppose this bill," the statement said.

"We should all be happy that Sen. Harris is growing in office," the statement continued. "By all means, let's clamp down on the filth who operate as sex traffickers—but without threatening the kind of online free speech we've all come to expect from the internet."

The NUL said the Portman-Blumenthal anti-sex-trafficking bill is "narrowly crafted" and will make necessary changes to the Communications Decency Act.

That law was originally intended to protect children from indecent material on the internet but has become a shield to prevent law enforcement and victims of human trafficking from holding companies actively engaged in sex trafficking accountable, according to the NUL.

"We have a responsibility to hold online sex traffickers accountable and ensure that trafficking survivors can get the justice they deserve," the NUL said in its letter. "We believe the Senate must act on this bill."