California Sen. Kamala Harris has a history of fighting child sex trafficking. Her name came up several times at a Senate hearing on new legislation against this horrific crime. What has some people questioning is why her name has not yet appeared as a co-sponsor of the sex trafficking legislation.
The new bill is aimed at the website, Backpage.com, which is a site that Harris once called “an online brothel.” Some activists blame the site for an 846% rise in reports of suspected sex trafficking since 2010.
“She’s conspicuously absent from being a sponsor” of the bipartisan legislation, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act,” says Lisa Thompson, vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “That raises eyebrows.”
Harris’ absence is surprising since when she was California’s attorney general, she made sex trafficking one of her highest priorities. She also worked hard to prosecute Backpage.com in the past. Behind the scenes, Harris seems to be very involved in the negotiations on the bill.
The California senator is a potential candidate for the 2020 presidential election. She has become the point person for a handful of Democrats with America’s most influential tech companies like Google and Facebook. These companies worry that the proposed legislation on sex trafficking might undermine internet freedom.
Harris, therefore, has to walk a tightrope as both a tech company and D.C. power broker. She wants to represent Silicon Valley which is not only influential in her state but nationally as well. They are also a significant source of funding for the Democratic Party. But on the other hand, she could anger anti-trafficking advocates that have historically been a part of her team.
The tech industry gave more than $34 million to candidates and political groups in 2016 alone according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And Harris received the 4th most abundant sum donated, behind Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
“This bill is really putting her on the spot to choose between millions from the tech industry … and families who have been through the ringer,” says Jamie Court, president of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.
Harris has a history of launching lawsuits against Backpage.com. But in August, a Sacramento judge delivered a blow to the state’s present lawsuit against Backpage.com. The judge dismissed 13 pimping charges against the site’s executives, ruling they were protected by a federal communications law.
An aide to Harris who declined to be named said she is working with the bill’s authors “to explicitly address sex trafficking” while avoiding unintended consequences that could harm the internet.
A lawyer for the Internet Association, a trade association that represents Google, Facebook and a host of other online heavyweights, gave testimony on the Senate floor that while the bill is “well-intentioned,” its vague language could cause internet service providers to face frivolous lawsuits and chill online activity. Abigail Slater, the lawyer for the Internet Association, said that it was possible to find the middle ground and called for “a more tailored bill.”
Erin Egan, VP of U.S. Policy with Facebook said in a statement that their social media site hopes to strike a balance between “giving victims of these horrible crimes and their advocates more tools to fight platforms that support sex traffickers … while also ensuring that [the Communications Decency Act], a law critical to the function of the Internet, is not unintentionally eroded.”
Some question whether Harris’ work is in vain because there really isn’t any “middle ground” that will give the bill the “teeth” anti-trafficking advocates are seeking and deal with the concerns about free speech on the internet.
The “delicate balance” for Harris has deep implications for her future. A spokesperson for the Consumer Watchdog group warns that if Harris plays a role in blocking or watering down the sex trafficking bill, it will damage her progressive credentials going into 2020.
Do you think Harris should sign on as a co-sponsor of this legislation?