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Websites Selling Sex Advertising Avoid Liability With Senate Bill Word Change

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The idea behind Senate Bill 94 was to hurt human traffickers by shutting down their internet connection to customers. The law was intended to stop websites from selling ads for sex.

The women, who are often underage, are trafficked for sex, their traffickers get the money, and the websites also get a cut. The Aim Group, an online media analyst, estimated that Backpage.com took in $22 million last year from escort advertising.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte proposed SB94 to make these websites liable for civil damages to the women who were victimized by them.

"These websites and other publications are profiting enormously from the posting of individuals soliciting sexual acts," Van De Putte said.

On Monday Van De Putte described how the statute was changed with the help of the Attorney General's Office, changing a key word from 'publishes' an advertisement to 'purchases.'

That change means a victim would only be able to use this statute to sue her pimp or the one that purchased the ad, effectively leaving the company hosting the ad alone.

This fundamentally changes the purpose of the bill, and the reason for the term change was simple - the original language was unenforceable.

"For the same reasons that the Washington statute was unconstitutional and illegal it would lead to the same result in Texas," said Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Zimmerman was lead council for the Internet Archive in their suit against a similar bill in Washington State last year; a suit that Washington finally gave up on.

The Washington bill imposed criminal penalties on sites like Backpage, but the concern was really about protecting internet service providers or web domains for not screening every bit of data that passes through.

"It would really constitute a fundamental rewrite of how the web was designed," Zimmerman said.

According to the 1996 communications decency act, operators of internet services can’t be held accountable for the content that third parties create.

Without it Zimmerman said there might be a chilling affect that leads ISPs and web domains to begin straining content, meaning that legitimate information would be affected as well.

"I don’t want an AT&T or a GoDaddy deciding what I can read…I would rather they went after the bad actors themselves than trying to go after the middlemen," Zimmerman said.

While sites like Backpage are protected from this type of statute, the issue of punishing everyone who makes money off these crimes continues to be grappled with by state legislatures across the country.