The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would normally applaud any law targeting sex trafficking, but a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week goes too far, the group says.
The legislation — which the Senate still must approve — allows websites that knowingly run ads for sex with minors or coerced subjects to be charged with a federal crime punishable by a fine and/or 5 years in prison. Although the ACLU actively fights sex trafficking, it says the bill unintentionally prohibits free speech because websites will immediately ban any ads and speech considered risky, even if they are not illegal.
“The most risk-averse [websites] will ban certain ads — and other speech — wholesale, just to be safe,” the ACLU said.
The ACLU also says the bill doesn’t clearly specify how much a website must know about illegal sex trafficking advertisements in order to be prosecuted.
“As for the bill, rather than narrowly targeting websites that knowingly advertise these despicable practices, it would allow police to criminally pursue a website that has no idea it is hosting, and has procedures in place to prevent, ads featuring criminal activity,” the ACLU said.
The group is also concerned websites will stop prescreening advertisements they publish in order to remain wilfully ignorant and prove they didn’t knowingly promote criminal activity.
“Websites, like Backpage.com, all too often facilitate the trafficking of people, including minors in South Dakota,” a press release from South Dakota Congresswoman Kristi Noem, a co-sponsor, said. “H.R. 4225 is designed to close internet marketplaces that host advertisements for the commercial exploitation of minors by allowing prosecutors to charge websites with a federal crime if they knowingly advertise sex with minors.”
The ACLU points out, however, that the legislation could also apply to any popular website where the public may see prostitution ads, such as Tinder, Craigslist, Facebook, and more.
The ACLU is calling for Congress to revise the bill so that it targets illegal sex trafficking without limiting free speech. “Lawmaking is messy stuff, and mistakes like this happen,” the ACLU said. “Working to combat coerced or underage prostitution is incredibly important; however, legislation must be carefully drafted to be sure to protect our free speech rights online.”
We reached out to Backpage.com for its take on the legislation, and we will update this post if we hear back.
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