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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Senate amps pressure on Big Tech to prevent online child trafficking

The bipartisan measure is part of a package of legislation making its way through the upper chamber aimed at shielding minors from exploitation online.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Thursday to approve a proposed bill that, if made law, would stand up more stringent guidelines for online service providers to report child exploitation and sex trafficking on their platforms.

The bipartisan measure, proposed by Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn and Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, sailed through the upper chamber’s legal panel on a voice vote. If signed, the legislation would, among other things, make it mandatory for service providers to report child sex trafficking and enticement crimes and hike penalties for organizations that fail to do so.

During remarks Thursday, Blackburn said that her measure, known as the Revising Existing Procedures on Reporting via Technology Act, serves as an effort to bring existing law up to speed with the types of crimes committed against minors online. It’s also a step toward holding Big Tech accountable for content on their platforms, she added.

“There has got to be some pain inflicted on these platforms because they turn a blind eye,” the Tennessee senator said. “We have to make sure they carry out that duty to report, and ensure that they are doing their part to root out these bad actors.”

Current law requires online service providers to report content known as child sexual abuse material to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s cyber tipline. Failing to do so can result in a fine of up to $150,000.

Under Blackburn’s and Ossoff’s legislation, mandatory reporting requirements would be expanded, and fines increased significantly: $600,000 for small organizations and $850,000 for large ones on the first offense. Subsequent violations could incur fines of up to $1 million.

Ossoff remarked on the bipartisan nature of his bill in the face of a divided Congress, calling it a timely and essential measure to hold tech companies’ feet to the fire.

“I know every parent across the country, frankly, is terrified about what can happen to kids on the Internet,” the Georgia Democrat said.

The measure is part of a package of five bills working their way through the Senate aimed at strengthening protections for minors online. The judiciary panel in May approved legislation proposed by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, the committee’s chair, that would further expand reporting requirements for online child sexual abuse material.

Although Thursday’s proposed bill cleared the judiciary committee with its full support, some members worried that interference from Big Tech was preventing Congress from clamping down harder on other issues affecting Silicon Valley.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar complained that tech companies have repeatedly torched major legislation — such as a bill she proposed in March aimed at allowing local news organizations to negotiate payment with platforms distributing their content. The lawmaker suggested that the judiciary panel has been able to pass only narrow reforms, and that it should widen its aperture.

“If we don’t stand up in a big way and start getting things through this committee, even if they’re not unanimous votes … nothing is going to get done,” Klobuchar said. “We as a country are going to sit and let more kids get hooked on this.”

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee advanced just one federal court nominee to the full Senate Thursday morning. The panel cleared Shannon Saylor, whom the White House has picked to become a U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia, on a unanimous voice vote.

The committee held over two other nominees — Ana de Alba, tapped as a judge for the Ninth Circuit, and Irma Carrillo Ramirez, the administration’s pick to fill a seat on the Fifth Circuit — until a later meeting. Nominees are usually held over once after being placed on the committee’s agenda at the request of the minority party.

The two delayed appointments, though, could prove to be some of the toughest to make their way through the judiciary panel since California Senator Dianne Feinstein returned to Congress, bringing with her a crucial committee vote for Democrats to advance some of the White House’s more controversial picks. During a confirmation hearing last month, Republicans accused de Alba of having a lenient decision record during her time as a district judge for the District of California.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
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