21st Century Fox has come out in support of a bill its backers say is meant to crack down on human sex trafficking. But Fox's stand puts it in opposition to some big edge providers—Google, Facebook, Amazon—who argue the bill's unintended consequence is to take a big bite out of the user-generated web traffic comprising the majority of interactions on the web, from blogs to social media posts to picture-sharing.
The bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, is sponsored by a bipartisan Who's Who of senators, including ranking Energy & Commerce Committee Democrat Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Republican Marco Rubio, also of Florida.
In a letter to Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who are leaders on the bill, 21st Century Fox executive VP, global public affairs, Chip Smith said that the company has a vested interest in a vibrant internet ecosystem, but also has a civic responsibility to stem illicit activity.
Related: CCIA Warns About New Online Liability Law
"It is unfortunate and alarming that critics of your bill would resort to hyperbole and scare tactics, arguing that passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will signal the demise of free speech and innovation on the internet," he wrote to the Senators. "Thankfully, those critics, influential as they may be, do not speak for the entire internet community.
The bill, say its sponsors, is meant to ensure that web sites such as Backpage.com, which knowingly facilitate sex trafficking according to a Senate investigation helmed by Portman and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), can be held liable.
It would do so by amending Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act to clarify that that section, which says internet services cannot be held liable for the actions of third parties, does not prevent enforcement against providers and users of federal and state laws against sex trafficking.
Sec. 230 allows companies to moderate a network without being responsible for all the content posted on it, which, the Computer & Communications Industry Association points out, prevents every post from being a potential lawsuit and has allowed for "literally every online platform that allows users to post information, content, and comments," which covers everyone from Google and Facebook to Snapchat and Pinterest.
CCIA members include Google, Amazon, Facebook and a veritable host of others.
Smith tells the senators that their bill is "a rational and measured effort to deal with a tragic and pernicious problem that is global in scope."
He concedes Sec. 230 protects his company's web presence as well, but adds: "We are confident the narrow and tailored legislation that you have proposed will appropriately target bad actors participating in this illegal activity and immediately serve to protect the most vulnerable among us from predatory sex traffickers."
21st Century Fox's stance probably can't hurt it in the UK, where it is trying to convince regulators vetting its proposed merger with Sky of its interest in content standards and looking out for the best interest of the public.
“It’s refreshing to see companies like 21st Century Fox, Oracle and CoStar Group stepping forward and actually acting in the public interest,” said John M. Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project, and no fan of the bill. “They recognize the problem and are doing something, while the rest of the tech industry is acting only in what it perceives to be its self-interest and greedily protecting profits no matter the harm. It’s time for Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yelp! and Twitter executives to get out of their pampered Silicon Valley bubble and act responsibly.”
Fox's letter comes as the Senate Commerce Committee scheduled a legislative hearing on the bill for Sept. 19.
(Photo via Rock1997. Image taken on Jan. 18, 2017 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 16x9 aspect ratio.)
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.