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US House passes legislation aiming to curb online sex trafficking

(Illustration by Maximilan Franz)

(Illustration by Maximilan Franz)

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation 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 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.

Boyd said in his letter that while the proposed law is “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.

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 in a statement to reconsider its plan to vote on the bill Tuesday, because of the issues raised by the Justice Department. He also said lawmakers need to help “end the heinous crime of sex trafficking.”

Goodlatte said on the House floor Tuesday he still supported the bill, H.R. 1865, adding that he hoped lawmakers could resolve the issue highlighted by the Justice Department. Deputy White House Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said in a statement that President Donald Trump’s administration also backs the legislation.

“Ending online human trafficking is a major priority of this administration,” she said.

A similar bill has been proposed in the Senate, where Ohio Republican Rob Portman said in an interview, “We are ready to pass it in the Senate once they pass it in the House.”

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

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.