U.S. Lawmakers Oppose Adding Website Liability Shield to NAFTA

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By Alexis Kramer

House lawmakers urged the U.S. Trade Representative Oct. 12 not to push for language in a revised North American Free Trade Agreement that would allow websites to avoid liability for user-posted content.

Including the language of a federal online publisher immunity law would “undermine” legislative efforts to combat the online promotion of sex trafficking, Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) wrote in a letter to USTR Robert Lighthizer.

Tech trade groups representing Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Facebook Inc., and other companies have recommended that the current version of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a U.S. statute that gives websites broad protections from liability for the content of others—be included in a revised agreement, the lawmakers said.

Noah Theran, spokesman for the Internet Association, one of two groups mentioned in the letter, told Bloomberg BNA that website liability protections in a revised NAFTA “would in no way hinder those efforts” to end sex trafficking online. A spokesperson for the Computer & Communications Industry Association didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wagner has introduced a bill ( H.R. 1865) that would amend Section 230 to hold websites liable for knowingly or recklessly publishing content designed to further sex trafficking. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has introduced a similar bill ( S. 1693) in the Senate. Both bills address the broad immunity that Section 230 has given to websites, including Backpage.com LLC, that allegedly enable sex traffickers to advertise their victims online.

“We trust you will recognize the severity of this issue and understand our concern with attempts to circumvent our nation’s elected representatives by installing Section 230 in its current form into international trade agreements,” the lawmakers said in their letter. They said they would be willing to discuss “revised Section 230 language that protects victims of sex trafficking.”

Portman spokesman Kevin Smith told Bloomberg BNA that the senator has made his position “perfectly clear with the USTR and the staff who are re-negotiating NAFTA. We cannot export legal protections for online sex trafficking to other countries.”

A spokesperson for Lighthizer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawmakers sent the letter in the midst of the fourth round of negotiations between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico over revising NAFTA. The negotiating round is taking place in Arlington, Va. and is scheduled to conclude Oct. 17.

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 letter at http://src.bna.com/tjS.

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