Wyden Tries to Stop Momentum Behind Bipartisan Sex-Trafficking Bill

Oregon Democrat places hold on measure after unanimous committee passage

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) / Getty Images
November 13, 2017

Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) is trying to put the brakes on a bipartisan anti-sex trafficking bill that is picking up steam and appears headed for all but certain Senate passage early next year.

The bill, which the Commerce Committee unanimously passed this week, would allow families of victims of sex-trafficking, as well as states, to sue websites like Backpage, a Craigslist competitor, that allow advertisements selling sex with minors to be posted.

Wyden on Wednesday issued a hold on the measure, arguing that it could harm start-up Internet companies, the tech economy, and innovators.

The Oregon Democrat helped write the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a provision of which the measure would alter. He also has authored legislation aimed at curbing sex-trafficking.

"Having written several laws to combat the scourge of sex trafficking, I take a backseat to no one on the urgency of fighting this horrendous crime," he said. "However, I continue to be deeply troubled that this bill's approach will make it harder to catch dangerous criminals, that it will favor big tech companies at the expense of startups and that it will stifle innovation."

Activists who support the bill are questioning Wyden's opposition to it and say it now has so much support—more than 46 sponsors in the Senate, including 17 Democrats—passage is all but certain.

"He's starting to look like one of those hold-outs on an armed camp on federal land as the National Guard closes in," said Jamie Court, president of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, which has strongly backed the bill along with the National Center for Sexual Exploitation and several other anti-trafficking groups.

"I don't know why Wyden is doing it—only Wyden knows. Google certainly appears to be the last holdout among the tech companies in adopting the simple notion that there has to be some accountability when an Internet site aids and abets underage sex trafficking," Court said.

Employees of Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc., have donated a total of $62,725 to Wyden so far in this 2018 election cycle, making the company his seventh-highest donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog.

Google did not return a Washington Free Beacon request for comment for this story.

A Wyden spokesman forwarded the senator's previously released statement spelling out his opposition to the bill and did not respond to questions on whether Google's donations influenced the decision in any way.

Wyden's one-man hold cannot block the legislation, but would force the Senate to use up valuable floor time to debate it and pass it with a recorded vote, instead of simply by unanimous consent.

The measure's authors say sex-trafficking is on the rise and point to a Senate report released late last year that found, a Craigslist competitor, repeatedly deleted terms like "Lolita" and "little girl" out of advertisements—red flags in the industry for underage girls being sold for sex.

A Free Beacon survey of the sex ads in October showed that terms such as, "Where is daddy" and "YOUNG & Fun" were still being used.

The main authors of the bill are confident it will pass with broad bipartisan Senate support and are happy to have the open and public debate about the bill.

"We look forward to the Senate passing it in an overwhelming fashion," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman (R, Ohio).

Portman is the primary sponsor of the measure, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.).

Wyden, who co-authored the section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that the bill would alter, argues the law has been instrumental in helping the United States to become a global leader because it protected Internet start-ups from having to worry about liability for the user-generated content they hosted.

He testified against the legislation during a Commerce committee hearing in September, and maintained his opposition as the bill gathered strong allies over the last month from a major civil rights group, media companies such as Disney and Twentieth Century Fox, several tech giants and both California Democratic senators.

Powerful Silicon Valley forces, such as Google and Facebook, previously opposed the measure, arguing that it erodes Internet freedom and places too much liability on websites.

Those companies appeared to back down last week when the Internet Association, which includes Google and Facebook as members, backed the bill after technical modifications that made clear that state attorneys general would need to use federal law, not state law, as the basis for their lawsuits.

That support came just days after Facebook, Twitter, and Google executives took a beating on Capitol Hill during hearings scrutinizing their role in allowing Russia propaganda to flow on their sites during the election.

However, Google has not said publicly whether it now supports the modified bill. Engine Advocacy, a non-profit that has several senior executives who previously worked for Google and is at least partially funded by Google, according to the company's transparency page, still strongly opposes the measure. 

Google said in mid-October it was working on an amendment that would "give victims and survivors the right to civil litigation and enable prosecutor to hold bad actors accountable for their crimes."

"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 and get to a resolution," former New York Rep. Susan Molinari, Google's vice president of public policy, told the Free Beacon.

The Internet Association's support for the bill came the same day California Sens. Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, announced their strong support for the modified bill, along with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.).

Harris's support was particularly notable. As California attorney general, Harris had tried, unsuccessfully, to prosecute Backpage, and had asked Congress to go even further in changing federal law to allow such lawsuits to move forward.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation criticized Harris’ reticence over the past few months on the bill and questioned whether Google and their donations to her were influencing her decision to stay on the sidelines for month until announcing her support last week.

Harris did not respond to the Free Beacon's requests for comment.

Published under: Oregon , Ron Wyden