Lawmakers Push Website Liability Changes After Court Ruling

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By Alexis Kramer

Senate and House lawmakers Aug. 24 called for swift action on legislation that would amend a federal online publisher immunity law, after a California state court dismissed some criminal charges against the CEO of classified ad site Backpage.com LLC.

“This court ruling underscores the need for Congress to act, and to act with urgency,” Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement.

The California Superior Court Aug. 23 dismissed pimping-related charges against CEO Carl Ferrer and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin because they were based on the content of sex trafficking ads created by others. The court said the state can prosecute Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin on money laundering charges.

The court said it was up to Congress to modify the broad immunity that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants to websites hosting third-party content. Backpage has been repeatedly shielded under the law from claims that it facilitates sex trafficking through ads on its site.

Portman introduced a bill ( S. 1693) Aug. 1 that would hold websites liable for knowingly publishing content designed to enable sex trafficking. Tech trade groups representing Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, and other companies have been pushing back against the bill. The groups argue it would have a chilling effect on free speech.

A similar bill in the House ( H.R. 1865) by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) would hold websites liable for knowingly or recklessly publishing third-party content designed to further sex trafficking. Neither bill has advanced.

“Congress never intended for Section 230 to create a lawless internet where people can commit sex trafficking crimes online that they cannot commit offline,” Wagner said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg BNA. “It is now incumbent upon us to amend the CDA to clarify that sex trafficking is not protected by Section 230’s immunity provisions.”

Tech groups argue that the best solution is for the Justice Department to prosecute rogue sites under federal criminal law. The law’s immunity provisions do not apply to federal criminal allegations.

The best and most efficient way to hold Backpage accountable is with a Justice Department prosecution, Carl Szabo, senior policy counsel for Washington, D.C.-based trade group NetChoice, whose members include Google and Facebook, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 24. Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 24 that the department doesn’t confirm or comment on the “existence or nonexistence of investigations.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexis Kramer in Washington at aKramer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

Full text of the Aug. 23 ruling at http://src.bna.com/rWY.

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