Tuesday, 31 October 2017 10:51

Sex trafficking bill may hit Google, online firms

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ANALYSIS Google and other Internet companies may soon have to reckon with lawsuits over sex trafficking if a Senate bill designed to combat the trade online is passed by the US Congress.

The bill is just one of the many problems confronting Google which appears to have gone from being virtually unassailable on Capitol Hill during the days of the Obama administration, to being in the hunted category after its open support for the Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The bill — co-sponsored by Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut — and titled the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 aims to change the Communications Decency Act to hold websites liable for publishing information “designed to facilitate sex trafficking”.

Until now, Section 230 has shielded Internet companies from criminal liability based on user conduct, The Guardian reported.

Google gave US$1.6 million to the Clinton campaign in 2016 and is now struggling to regain anything like the influence it wielded in Washington before the Trump administration took office.

Eric Schmidt, the head of Google's parent company Alphabet, created a company to provide digital services to the Clinton campaign and even drew up a detailed plan for the campaign.

Allegations that Russia used ads on Google, among other platforms, to try and influence the US elections have seen Democrats also become critical of a company which once was in lockstep with them.

Technology companies are due to face Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday US time for questioning on the Russia issue. A bill introduced by senators from both sides seeks to make it compulsory for Internet firms to disclose the financial backers of political online ads.

Online companies have been holding meetings to try and come up with a way to counter what they see as hostile forces in government. Media companies, affected by the tilt to online advertising, have helped to push the antipathy towards companies like Google and Facebook.

Oracle Corporation is the only technology company that has backed the bill against sex trafficking. The company's main online business is in the cloud.

Google's close ties with the White House have been said to be the main reason why the company has avoided a probe into unfair competition in the US. A probe was proposed by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012.

The lack of such cosy ties in the EU has cost Google which was hit with a US$2.7 billion fine in June for allegedly abusing its search engine dominance to give illegal advantage to its own comparison shopping service.

Google has won one victory in the US after Donald Trump came to office, lobbying successfully to get Utah Attorney-General Sean Reyes from being installed as FTC chairman. Last year, Reyes called for the closed anti-trust action against Google to be reopened.

But without allies in Congress, the search giant may find that its day of reckoning in the US is approaching sooner than it anticipated.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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