Senate Vets Online Speech Liability Bill

The Senate Commerce Committee is preparing to get into the trenches with stakeholders over the controversial “S. 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017," which could potentially lead to other liability carveouts for offensive online speech.

That vetting is coming in a hearing on the legislation Sept. 19.

The bipartisan bill, which was introduced last month, would update the Communications Decency Act to clarify that Section 230, 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.

Related: International Communications Privacy Bill Reintroduced

Sec. 230 allows companies to moderate a network without being responsible for all the content posted on it.

Its backers says that the update to targeting sex trafficking is necessary to try and stop such traffic. Critics, including many in Silicon Valley, say it could put virtually all social media sites at risk of lawsuits over posts by their members.

Fox, for example, backs the bill, saying it is "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."

Related: Connected Government Act Referred Out of Committee

Opponents, including computer companies, say it could potentially threaten "literally every online platform that allows users to post information, content, and comments,” which covers everyone from Google and Facebook to Snapchat and Pinterest, by turning every post into a potential lawsuit.

Among the issues teed up for the hearing are differences between the Senate and House versions, whether the "knowingly" part of the bill limits any of the risk from frivolous litigation, and if Congress carves out sex trafficking content from other protected content, where does it draw the line for other offensive or illegal content.

Witnesses for the hearing are:

-The Honorable Xavier Becerra, attorney general for the State of California
-Mr. Eric Goldman, professor, Santa Clara University School of Law
-Ms. Abigail Slater, general counsel, Internet Association
-Ms. Yiota Souras, senior VP & general counsel, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

John Eggerton

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.