WASHINGTON: US lawmakers are preparing to vote this week on legislation holding website owners liable for human trafficking, amid criticism from civil liberties activists that it could undermine free speech on the internet.
A bill that could reach the House of Representatives as early as Tuesday aims to make it easier to bring to criminal charges against websites that knowingly facilitate or promote sex trafficking.
The measure seeks to reconcile separate legislative efforts in the House and Senate and is aimed at websites such as Backpage, which has been accused of facilitating sexual exploitation.
The bill "will significantly help prosecutors crack down on websites that promote sex trafficking, while providing much needed recourse for the thousands of men, women, and children who are victims of this evil industry," said Representative Mimi Walters, a California Republican and sponsor of an amendment to resolve differences in the House and Senate bills.
But critics of the measure say the legislation would undermine a basic underpinning of the internet, which enables websites to host information from third parties without liability.
Emma Llanso of the Center for Democracy & Technology said the bill "would create a confusing mashup of overlapping forms of federal and state criminal and civil liability for internet intermediaries" and result in online censorship of legal content.
"This bill jeopardizes not only classified ads sites but also dating apps, discussion forums, social media sites, and any other service that hosts user-generated content," Llanso said.
Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said if the bill becomes law it could encourage website operators to censor any potentially risky content or take a hands-off approach to show they did not "knowingly" facilitate human trafficking.
"The 'moderator's dilemma' is bad news because it encourages internet companies to dial down their content moderation efforts, potentially increasing the quantity of 'bad' content online -- including, counterproductively, the quantity of now- unmoderated sex trafficking promotions," Goldman said in a blog post.
Last year, major internet firms agreed to support a measure on online liability after reaching a compromise with legislative sponsors.
The latest bill, dubbed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), was set for a committee vote Monday, which could set up a vote of the full House on Tuesday.