There’s No Freedom of Speech to Enable Sex Trafficking of Children

With freedom comes responsibility.

A Tuesday Senate hearing on the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, SESTA, S.1693, will spotlight the strong objections of intermedia platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb, which oppose it as a slippery slope towards being subjected to the same public accountability standards as offline companies. 

SESTA is a bipartisan bill that seeks to narrowly amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, to clarify that Section 230’s immunity from intermediary liability was never meant to immunize sex trafficking as a form of protected freedom of speech. 

The problem SESTA targets is best explained by a 2017 report by Consumer Watchdog and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, that spotlights how child sex trafficking effectively is enabled and legally protected in America via Section 230 immunity.  

The report documents how “for years, one company – – has dominated online trafficking in minors for sex;” and how Backpage is suspected to be involved in “73% of all suspected sex trafficking reports in the U.S.”

The 48-page report also chronicles in detail how Alphabet-Google has long bankrolled and organized much of Backpage’s legal support that has enabled Backpage to evade justice for several years by exploiting Section 230’s sweeping immunities from online intermediary liability. 

Trust in Google was built in part on the promise in its uniquely unequivocal “don’t be evil” corporate motto. 

If Google doesn’t consider purposeful enablement of child sex trafficking evil, what does it consider evil?

At the hearing, Senators should ask an Alphabet-Google representative if bankrolling the legal defense of one of the worst perpetrators, of one of the worst types of harms to females imaginable, is evil, freedom of speech, or just the cost of doing business?   

The Internet Association opposes SESTA because: it “jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open Internet, with serious economic and speech implications.”

Americans enjoy their First Amendment freedom of speech rights to have and share one’s own beliefs and opinions, but understand their freedom of speech is not a license to harm others.

They know it is illegal to perjure, defraud, libel, slander, incite violence, riots, or sedition, publicly share classified information, trade secrets, or information subject to a nondisclosure agreement; deceptively advertise, misrepresent facts on food or safety labels, or joke about terrorism in an airport security line.

Under what twisted concept of freedom of speech is enabling child sex trafficking?

How can there be protected free speech for the obvious heinous crime and harm of criminal conspiracies selling and torturing tens of thousands of innocent girls and boys every day?

Thus, SESTA is not about freedom of speech. It’s about clarifying legal and practical culpability for the obvious heinous crimes of knowingly enabling child sex trafficking.

Make no mistake, if Google and its Internet Association allies adamantly oppose amending Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act with SESTA, which is among the worthiest Section 230 amendments imaginable, then the intermedia’s real position is that Section 230’s asymmetric immunities, that powerfully advantage online commerce over offline commerce, should never be amended.

That is an untenable position for Alphabet-Google and the Internet Association to hold.

Section 230 passed in 1996 when only 3% of Americans were online and the Internet still functioned like a worldwide electronic bulletin board.

No one is more aware of how fantastically different Intermediary online platforms are today versus when Congress primitively defined them as “interactive computer services” twenty years ago, than today’s increasingly dominant intermedia companies, that are de facto immunized from much normal offline accountability.

Hypocritically, the Nation’s supposedly most dynamic sector, that claims to exemplify innovation, change, and data-driven decision-making, owns a de facto, backward-looking, no change allowed, luddite policy position that Section 230 is too “foundational” to ever change.

Never mind that the U.S. Constitution was amended twelve times in the first sixteen years after its ratification.    

Don’t be fooled, intermedia opposition to SESTA is not about protecting freedom of speech or innovation.

It’s all about protecting the relative commercial advantages that Section 230 immunity from offline accountability gives Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb over their accountable offline competitors.


Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an internetization consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Google competitors, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” Cleland has testified before both the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees on Google.