Google has enlisted its broad network of paid policy groups to fight legislation that would remove a legal shield for websites that knowingly profit from child sex-trafficking.
At least 34 groups that receive Google funding have opposed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), according to research from the Google Transparency Project. The bill has garnered wide support from Republicans and Democrats amid growing concern that tech companies are protecting the online trade in minors.
Groups funded by Google or its parent company have published dozens of op-eds and blog posts opposing the bill, as well as signing on to coalition letters to members of Congress and issuing statements and action alerts to oppose the bill. Almost all the nonprofits, academics and policy groups that have adopted a public stance against the bill have received financial support from Google.
With few exceptions, the groups failed to disclose Google’s financial support of their organizations or the academic institutions where they are employed. While many of the nonprofits, academics and policy groups also receive funding from other Silicon Valley companies, the common denominator among almost all SESTA opponents appears to be Google’s financial support.
GTP’s analysis follows an earlier report by the California-based Consumer Watchdog, that found that two Google-funded nonprofits—the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) —have been working for years to support the legal defense of Backpage against lawsuits filed by underage sex trafficking victims. CDT and EFF have also led the charge in opposing SESTA, publishing a flurry of action alerts and issue briefs against the legislation and urging their supporters to express their opposition directly with members of Congress.
The groups contend that efforts to hold Backpage accountable for facilitating sex trafficking of minors violates Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key law that Internet companies like Google credit with shielding them from liability for publishing information online provided by others.
The bill currently has 32 cosponsors, almost one-third of the US Senate, and was the subject of a Sept. 19 hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.
The Google-funded Campaign against SESTA
On Aug. 1, 2017, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman introduced an amendment to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold sites such as Backpage.com accountable for knowingly facilitating child sex trafficking.
The bill followed an investigation of Backpage by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which issued a report in January of 2016 finding the company “knowingly facilitated the criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls” by modifying ads posted by their pimps to remove language suggesting the victims were underage.
The Portman bill, along with a similar companion bill in the House, immediately triggered a powerful pushback from Silicon Valley companies such as Google, as well as many of the groups funded by the company.
Domain registration records show that even before Portman introduced his bill, nonprofits funded by Google were already girding for battle. For example, on July 27, five days before Sen. Portman introduced his bill, the Copia Institute and Engine Advocacy registered the web domain 230matters.com to serve as a clearinghouse for SESTA opposition.
The Copia Institute, founded in 2013 by the technology blogger Michael Masnick counts Google as one of its earliest corporate supporters, along with the MacArthur Foundation and Silicon Valley heavyweights like Andreessen Horowitz. Copia’s focus includes policy issues important to Silicon Valley, such as copyright, privacy, and freedom of expression. However, it notes: “[W]e’re not a lobbying group or an advocacy organization: we’re a network of entrepreneurs, experts, engineers and thinkers working to foster innovation by utilizing innovation itself.”
Engine Advocacy bills itself as a nonprofit that encourages the growth of technology startups in San Francisco and was instrumental in the efforts to defeat anti-piracy legislation in 2012, bills that Google staunchly opposed. Google is also a substantial funder of the organization, according to its “Transparency” page.
The advocacy group was founded by ex-Googlers Josh Mendelsohn and Joshua To in late 2011 to defeat two anti-piracy bills – the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).
As highlighted by GTP in a July study on Google funded academics, Engine Advocacy board member Marvin Ammori has also served as a longtime Google consultant. Google was the “largest and most substantial client” of his consulting firm.
In the week following Senator Portman’s introduction of SESTA, dozens of Google-funded groups flooded the Internet with op-eds, blog posts and other information opposing the Portman bill. In all, at least 30 Google-funded groups weighed-in to oppose SESTA between August 1 and August 7, 2017.
They included trade associations representing Silicon Valley companies; right-of-center groups such as the Heritage Foundation and R Street Institute; left-of-center and free speech groups such as the New America Foundation; and even academics at some of the leading institutions in America such as Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center.
All receive financial support from Google or its parent company, according to disclosures compiled by the GTP.
For example, on Aug. 2, a group of 10 trade associations sent a letter to Senators Portman and Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, expressing concerns that the bill “would severely undermine a crucial protection for legitimate online companies” and “be counterproductive to those companies’ efforts to combat trafficking crimes.”
Google is a member of every trade association that signed the letter.
The same day, the New York Times published an article titled “Senate Crackdown on Online Sex Trafficking Hits Opposition”, quoting several opponents of SESTA. Jonathan Zittrain, the co-founder and director of the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society was one academic expressing concern.
“It would be good for the drafters of the bill to engage seriously with the nontrivial objections that are meant to support freedom of expression online,” Zittrain wrote. Zittrain’s Berkman Klein Center receives funding from Google and Facebook according to its “funding and support” page, and was the subject of a 2010 investigative story by Emily Brill that reported Google was the Center’s top corporate backer.
A day later, on August 3, a group of 13 policy organizations sent a letter to Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) expressing their “deep concerns” with SESTA and urging the Senate to “exercise the utmost caution in any re-consideration of Section 230.”
Eight of the thirteen signatories to the letter receive Google financial support, including:
- R Street Institute
- Heritage Action
- New America Open Technology Institute
- International Center for Law and Economics
- Copia Institute
- Access Now
- Niskanen Center
That same day, Google lobbyist Stewart Jeffries emailed Congressional staffers urging them to oppose Senator Portman’s legislation. Jeffries included links to the August 2 trade association letter as well as statements opposing the bill from the Consumer Electronics Association, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Engine Advocacy—all of which also receive Google funding.
On August 4, seven free speech policy groups sent their own letter to Senators McConnell and Schumer to convey their “significant concern” with SESTA. Six of the 7 groups signing the letter receive Google financial support, including:
- Access Now
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Center for Democracy & Technology
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
- New America’s Open Technology Institute
- PEN America
Several of the policy groups also published op-eds and blogs opposing SESTA on the day of and the days following Portman’s introduction of the bill. On Aug. 1, Masnick of the Copia Institute published a blog post at TechDirt titled “Senate’s latest attack on Backpage will be massively counterproductive, create tremendous harm.”
Multiple blogs from EFF, CDT, the R Street Institute, TechFreedom and other groups receiving Google funding were posted to their websites, while other Google-funded non-profits such as Engine Advocacy, the Niskanen Center, and the Center for Data Innovation (a subsidiary of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) posted op-eds to The Hill. None of the groups disclosed their Google support.
Other groups one might normally expect to support SESTA published their own op-eds opposing the measure. On Aug. 4, Larry Magid, the CEO of Connect Safely, a nonprofit focused on online safety issues for children published a Forbes op-ed entitled: “The well-meaning ‘Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act’ could be a Trojan Horse.”
Magid argued that Portman’s bill “could backfire and wind up suppressing speech and disincentivizing companies from offering protections, which could make their services less safe.”
Magid noted that his Internet safety organization “receives support from internet companies that may be affected by this proposed law.” Connect Safely’s funders include Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat among others.
Google’s Third Party Allies Prepare for Senate Commerce Hearing
Following the initial flurry of activity in the first week of August, opposition to the anti-sex trafficking measure largely died down until early September when rumors emerged that the Senate Commerce Committee was considering a hearing on the Portman bill. Like the early August offensive, Google-funded groups were again enlisted to stop the legislative momentum for SESTA.
On September 2, NetChoice, published an op-ed to The Hill titled “DOJ is not wielding its power to bring down online sex trafficking.” The op-ed argued that federal prosecutors already had the enforcement tools to tackle bad online actors, but had not done enough to prosecute companies like Backpage. Google along with eBay, Facebook, Yahoo and other tech companies are financial supporters of NetChoice.
On September 6, EFF published an “action alert”, again expressing its strong opposition to the Portman bill and encouraging visitors to “Stop SESTA” by emailing their members of Congress.
The “Stop SESTA” alert appeared at the top of Google News for several consecutive days as the top news story when searching for “Portman sex trafficking” or “Section 230”, prompting critics like Consumer Watchdog to protest that Google appeared to be manipulating its Google News results to oppose the anti-sex trafficking legislation.
On September 12, Engine Advocacy published an op-ed to the Florida Sun Sentinel titled “Federal legislation could hurt Florida’s $54 billion tech industry.” The piece was a shot across the bow of Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), a co-sponsor of the Portman bill and staunch advocate of amending Section 230 to hold online sites accountable for facilitating sex trafficking.
On September 18, The Hill published another op-ed opposing the bill, this time from Daphne Keller with the Stanford Center for Internet & Society, whose funders include Google and Microsoft. Keller, a former associate general counsel for Google, noted that SESTA was “sloppy” and a “clumsy approach that should not be under consideration.”
In all, The Hill published no less than five op-eds from Google-funded organizations opposed to SESTA between Aug. 1 and the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Sept. 19.
The same day, another Google-funded academic, Princeton’s Nick Feamster published a blog post at the Freedom to Tinker blog arguing that SESTA may require content providers to implement filters to eliminate unwanted content from the Internet, and that such filters were inaccurate and could eliminate legal and legitimate speech. Feamster has received $1.6 million in Google research awards since 2011, according to his curriculum vitae.
Politico also reported on September 18th that NetChoice had hired former Congressman Chris Cox, one of the original drafters of Section 230, to lobby against SESTA and help draft written testimony for opponents ahead of the Senate Commerce Committee hearing the next day.
At the Sept. 19 Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Google-funded groups were again out in force. Professor Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University, testified to the Committee that he had concerns with state attorneys general having the authority to prosecute online sites that facilitated sex trafficking.
“We open up the door to a whole bunch of new laws not previously enforced against the Internet community,” Goldman testified. “Those laws haven’t been approved by the rest of the Internet, they’ve been approved by those states voters.”
The Markkula Center at Santa Clara University, where Goldman is a faculty member, received $500,000 from Google in 2011 as part of a cy pres legal settlement the company made over privacy violations related to its Google Buzz social network. In 2015, Goldman, along with EFF and CDT, filed an amicus brief supporting Backpage in a Massachusetts civil suit by three underage girls accusing the company of contributing to the sexual abuse of minors.
The legal brief supported Backpage’s argument that Section 230 shielded the company from liability and urged the court to dismiss the case.
The same day, Copia’s Masnick published four blog posts at TechDirt chastising the Senate for considering SESTA. One post noted “Senator Blumenthal Happy that SESTA Will Kill Small Internet Companies.” Another headline was titled “Is there a single online service not put at risk by SESTA?”
EFF hosted a “live blog” during the Senate hearing by Elliot Harmon, Sophia Cope and India McKinney in which they criticized the bill and urged people to write their members of Congress.
The same day, Internet rights group Fight for the Future sent an email action alert to its members with the provocative title “Wikipedia and Reddit shutting down?” and comparing the legislation to SOPA PIPA.
A Google lobbyist, Derek Slater, is listed as a financial contributor to FFTF. Slater says he helped build Google's online activism function and rallied 7 million users to oppose the SOPA bill that the company staunchly opposed. His LinkedIn profile notes that he coordinates closely with third-party groups on Google’s behalf.