Epstein’s accusers appear in court at hearing weeks after his suicide

Gloria Allred, representing alleged victims of Jeffrey Epstein, arrives with an unidentified women for a hearing in the criminal case against Jeffrey Epstein, who died this month in what a New York City medical examiner ruled a suicide, at Federal Court in New York, U.S., August 27, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Women who say Jeffrey Epstein sexually abused them voiced anger and defiance in a packed New York courtroom on Tuesday during a dramatic hearing less than three weeks after the financier killed himself while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

“I feel very angry and sad that justice has never been served in this case,” Courtney Wild, one of the women, told the hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Berman.

“I will not let him win in death,” another woman, Chauntae Davies, told the court.

Federal prosecutors appeared at the hearing to ask the judge to formally dismiss their case against Epstein.

Berman explained why he gave the women and their lawyers an opportunity to address the court.

“The victims have been included in the proceeding today both because of their relevant experiences and because they should always be involved before, rather than after, the fact,” Berman said at the outset of the hearing.

Epstein, who once counted U.S. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton as friends, was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of girls as young as 14.

The 66-year-old was found dead Aug. 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan. An autopsy concluded that he hanged himself.

Davies said she was hired by Epstein to give massages. The financier raped her the third or fourth time they met on his private island and continued to abuse her, Davies said.

Another woman, who chose not to give her name, said Epstein’s death must be investigated.

“We do need to know how he died. It felt like a whole new trauma. … It didn’t feel good to wake up that morning and find that he allegedly committed suicide,” she said, holding back tears.

Another unnamed woman said she came to New York to become a model and was victimized by Epstein.

“I’m just angry that he’s not alive to have to pay the price for his actions,” she said.

Berman ordered prosecutors and defense lawyers for Epstein to appear in court after the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office said it wanted to dismiss the indictment against the financier in light of his jail cell death.

‘CURIOUS’ DEATH

During the hearing, attorney Brad Edwards, who represents women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, said, “I have in the courtroom today 15 victims I represent and have represented over the years. There are at least 20 more who didn’t make this hearing today.”

Edwards said Epstein’s “untimely death” was “curious,” adding: “More so, it makes it absolutely impossible for the victims to ever get the day in court that they wanted, and to get full justice. That now can never happen.”

At the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurene Comey said the law required the dismissal of the case in light of Epstein’s death, but said the government’s investigation was ongoing.

“Dismissal of this indictment as to Jeffrey Epstein in no way prohibits or inhibits the government’s ongoing investigation into potential co-conspirators,” Comey said.

Epstein’s death has triggered investigations by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which runs the detention facility.

Epstein’s arrest in New York came more than a decade after Epstein avoided being prosecuted on similar federal charges in Florida by striking a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to state prostitution charges.

That deal, which has been widely criticized as too lenient, resulted in Epstein serving 13 months in a county jail, which he was allowed to leave during the day on work release.

Brittany Henderson, a lawyer with Edwards’ firm, read a statement from another victim, Michelle Licata.

“I was told then that Jeffrey Epstein was going to be held accountable, but he was not,” she said of the earlier investigation. “The case ended without me knowing what was going on. … I was treated like I did not matter.”

Multiple women have filed civil lawsuits against Epstein’s estate since his death, saying he abused them and seeking damages. Some have alleged the abuse continued after his plea deal and even while he was on work release from his previous jail sentence.

Just two days before his death, Epstein signed a will placing all of his property, worth more than $577 million, in a trust, according to a copy of the document seen by Reuters.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Will Dunham)

Epstein’s accusers urge U.S. judge to keep him jailed until sex trafficking trial

Jeffrey Epstein (L) looks on as lawyer Martin Weinberg speaks during a a bail hearing in U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein's sex trafficking case, in this court sketch in New York, U.S., July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two women who say they are victims of sexual misconduct by American financier Jeffrey Epstein on Monday urged a U.S. judge to keep him in jail while he awaits trial on charges of sex trafficking dozens of underage girls.

“He’s a scary person,” one of the women, Courtney Wild, told U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in federal court in Manhattan.

Wild and another accuser, Annie Farmer, spoke at the end of a hearing in which prosecutors argued that Epstein, 66, posed an “extraordinary risk of flight” and danger to the community and must remain in jail.

Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty, has asked to be allowed to live under house arrest with armed guard at his expense in his mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which is valued at $77 million.

The hedge fund manager had a social circle that over the years has included Donald Trump before he became U.S. president, former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew.

Berman said he would probably announce his bail decision on Thursday at 9:30 a.m. EDT (1330 GMT), saying he needed more time to absorb the case.

Lawyers for Epstein said their client, who wore dark blue jail scrubs in court, has had an unblemished record since he pleaded guilty more than a decade ago to a state prostitution charge in Florida and agreed to register as a sex offender.

Critics have called that plea deal, which let Epstein avoid federal prosecution, too lenient.

Epstein is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a fortress-like jail that has been criticized by inmates and lawyers for harsh conditions.

He pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking and conspiracy charges on July 8, two days after his arrest at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport, where he had flown back on his private plane from Paris. Epstein faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted.

Epstein is accused of arranging for girls under the age of 18 to perform nude “massages” and other sex acts, and of paying some girls to recruit others, from at least 2002 to 2005.

A prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Rossmiller, on Monday told the judge that a search of Epstein’s home uncovered nude images of underage girls, including at least one who claimed to be among the financier’s victims.

The prosecutor also said one item seized was a passport that appeared to have been issued by a foreign country in the 1980s that containing Epstein’s photo, but someone else’s name.

Last week, prosecutors said in a court filing that Epstein made payments to potential witnesses last year in an apparent effort to influence them.

One of his lawyers, Martin Weinberg, told Berman on Monday that Epstein needed to be out of jail so he and his lawyers could prepare their defense.

In 2016, Berman rejected a similar bail proposal from Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab to let him live in an apartment under the watch of privately funded guards, saying wealthy defendants should not be allowed to “buy their way out of prison by constructing their own private jail.”

The judge expressed similar skepticism on Monday, noting that all defendants have the same right to prepare their defense as Epstein.

“If that’s the standard, then what are we going to tell all those people who can’t make the $500 or $1,000 bail?” he said.

Under the Florida agreement, Epstein served 13 months in a county jail, but was allowed to go to his office during the day.

A federal judge ruled in February that the agreement violated a federal law on crime victims’ rights.

Alex Acosta, who as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida oversaw Epstein’s earlier deal, resigned on Friday as Trump’s Secretary of Labor, saying he did not want to be a distraction for the White House.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein charged with sex trafficking of underage girls

Members of the media await the arraignment of Jeffrey Epstein outside of Manhattan Federal Court, after the Southern District of New York announced charges of sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, in New York, U.S., July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – American financier Jeffrey Epstein was charged with sex trafficking on Monday, as prosecutors accused him of luring dozens of girls as young as 14 to his luxury homes in New York and Florida and paying them for sex acts.

FILE PHOTO: Jeffrey Epstein is shown in this undated Florida Department of Law Enforcement photo. REUTERS/Florida Department of Law Enforcement/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Jeffrey Epstein is shown in this undated Florida Department of Law Enforcement photo. REUTERS/Florida Department of Law Enforcement/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

An indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan said Epstein, 66, “intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18, including because, in some instances, minor victims expressly told him their age.”

The former hedge fund manager was accused of arranging for girls to perform nude “massages” and other sex acts, and paying some girls to recruit others.

Epstein has said in earlier court filings that his encounters with alleged victims were consensual and that he believed they were 18 when they occurred.

The indictment charged Epstein with one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex trafficking conspiracy for alleged misconduct from at least 2002 to 2005.

His lawyer, Jack Goldberger, said before the indictment was made public that Epstein will plead not guilty.

Epstein was arrested on Saturday night and is expected to appear in federal court on Monday.

Known for socializing with politicians and royalty, Epstein once had friends including U.S. President Donald Trump and former president Bill Clinton, and according to court papers Britain’s Prince Andrew.

None of those people were mentioned in the indictment.

EARLIER DEAL

The former hedge fund manager first came under investigation in 2005 after police in Palm Beach, Florida, received reports he had sexually abused underage girls in his mansion there.

By 2007, Epstein was facing a potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls between 1999 and 2007, directing others to abuse them, and paying employees to bring victims to him, according to court filings.

However, Epstein struck a deal to plead guilty to a lesser Florida state felony prostitution charge. He served 13 months in a county jail, but was allowed to leave during the day to go to his office, and agreed to register as a sex offender.

Prosecutors involved in that agreement included Alex Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and now Secretary of Labor for Trump.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor on Sunday declined to comment on Epstein’s arrest.

 

‘MASSAGES’

Epstein would initially recruit victims to provide “massages,” which they would perform nude or partially nude, the indictment said.

Prosecutors said the encounters would become increasingly sexual in nature, sometimes including groping and indirect contact with victims’ genitals, where Epstein would typically masturbate and ask victims to touch him while he did.

Epstein paid girls to recruit new girls, to ensure a “steady supply of new victims to exploit” prosecutors said.

Three unnamed employees, one in Manhattan and two in Palm Beach, aided Epstein by arranging some of his sexual encounters, the indictment said.

Several of Epstein’s accusers had challenged his Florida deal in court, saying they were denied a chance to express their views, violating the federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

In February of this year, a U.S. district judge in Florida agreed, saying the deal was illegal.

Even so, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a court filing last month there was no reason to cancel the agreement.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives confronted Acosta about his role in April, during a hearing before a House subcommittee on a routine budget matter.

Acosta told lawmakers that human trafficking was “an incredibly important issue,” and that his office’s efforts ensured that Epstein would be punished.

“I understand the frustration,” Acosta said. “It’s important to understand that he was going to get off with no jail time or restitution. It was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail.”

The Justice Department is investigating whether government lawyers committed professional misconduct in the Florida case.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)

Filmmaker says New York sex cult was front for a ‘horrible evil’

Former self-help guru Keith Raniere (R) looks on during questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza (not shown) of a witness (victim whose likeness is not permitted to be sketched) in this courtroom sketch, at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York, U.S., May 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

A secretive New York group that federal prosecutors say evolved into a sex cult tried to conceal a “horrible evil” behind a facade of self-improvement, a man who spent 12 years in the organization said Thursday at the group leader’s criminal trial.

The man, filmmaker Mark Vicente, is the second witness to testify against Keith Raniere. Raniere is on trial for crimes including sex trafficking for his role running the secretive upstate New York Nxivm group, where prosecutors said he forced women to have sex with him and in some cases branded his initials on them.

Vicente said he was like many of the group’s members when he joined it 2005, buying into Raniere’s pitch of himself as a genius who could help people turn their lives around. It took him 12 years to leave the group after he learned of the sexual practices and other abuse performed on members, he testified.

“It’s a well-intended veneer that covers a horrible evil,” an emotional Vicente said during the trial’s third day in federal court in Brooklyn.

Raniere, 58, has pleaded not guilty to charges including sex trafficking and child pornography. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say women were blackmailed into having sex with Raniere and branded with his initials as part of a secret society within Nxivm called DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly means “master of the obedient female companions.”

Defense lawyer Marc Agnifilo has argued at the trial that members joined voluntarily and were never forced to do anything against their will.

Vicente said Nxivm President Nancy Salzman contacted him around 2005 after seeing a film he made about quantum physics and philosophy, saying she wanted to introduce him to Raniere.

That meeting led Vicente to begin his association with the group. He gave jurors a brief crash course on Nxivm, listing more than a dozen organizations and self-improvement programs under its umbrella that cost thousands of dollars.

A former Nxivm and DOS member who was only identified by her first name Sylvie on Wednesday told jurors she was recruited as a “slave” to another woman in the organization. Her “master” eventually ordered her to engage in sexual activity with Raniere, who also took nude photos of her, she said.

Sylvie said she felt she had to do what she was told, both because of years of psychological manipulation by Raniere and others, and because she had given her master compromising material that could be used to blackmail her.

Other individuals who say they were victims of the group are expected to testify. Five of Raniere’s co-defendants, including Salzman, Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and former “Smallville” television actress Allison Mack, have pleaded guilty to related crimes.

Nxivm, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced “Nexium,” was based in Albany, New York.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson; editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)

Accused sex cult founder could face former ‘slaves’ at New York trial

Actress Allison Mack departs the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse after facing charges regarding sex trafficking and racketeering related to the Nxivm cult case in New York, U.S., April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Joseph Ax and Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Former self-help guru Keith Raniere goes on trial on Tuesday on charges of running a secretive New York sex cult that recruited female “slaves” who were then starved, branded with his initials and blackmailed into having sex with him.

Federal prosecutors have charged Raniere, 58, with using his cultlike Nxivm group, which claimed to offer members unique insights into life, as a front for crimes including sex trafficking, child pornography and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Several of his alleged “slaves” are expected to testify at U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. While prosecutors have not said who will take the stand, former “Smallville” star Allison Mack and Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman have already pleaded guilty to playing supporting roles in the scheme.

Jurors have been warned to expect disturbing testimony and evidence during a trial that could run six weeks. Prosecutors intend to introduce explicit photographs of a 15-year-old girl alleged to have been one of Raniere’s victims, seized from his computer hard drive.

Mack and Bronfman are among five co-defendants, all women accused of involvement in Nxivm, who pleaded guilty to various charges in March and April, leaving Raniere as the sole person to face trial. The television actress tearfully acknowledged in court that she had blackmailed two women into providing services for her and other Nxivm members.

Bronfman, who provided key financial support for Nxivm, pleaded guilty in April and agreed to forfeit $6 million.

Raniere has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Marc Agnifilo, one of Raniere’s lawyers, has said that his client’s sexual encounters with women in the organization were consensual and denied the child pornography and exploitation charges.

The trial caps a bizarre saga for Raniere, who was arrested in March 2018 after fleeing to Mexico with Bronfman.

Nxivm, which started under another name in 1998 and is pronounced “Nexium,” was based in Albany, New York, and at one time operated numerous centers across the United States, Canada, Central America and Mexico.

The organization marketed itself as a business “providing educational tools, coaching and trainings” that would allow “humanity to rise to its noble possibility,” according to court filings.

In 2015, prosecutors say, Raniere established a sorority within Nxivm known as DOS, an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “master of the obedient female companions.”

The subgroup included “slaves” who were expected to bend their wills to “masters” in a pyramid-like structure, with slaves expected in turn to recruit their own subordinates and Raniere standing alone at the top.

The slaves were required to submit “collateral” to win acceptance that could then be used as blackmail material: Nude photos, rights to their financial assets or damaging information about friends and relatives, prosecutors said.

Several women were branded with Raniere’s initials, prosecutors said, and they were required to engage in sexual acts with him. He is also accused of having forced some women to maintain slim figures by following a dangerously restrictive diet.

If convicted, Raniere faces up to life in prison.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Brendan Pierson; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Wisconsin man found guilty of sex trafficking on now-defunct Backpage.com

FILE PHOTO: An image of the current home page of the website backpage.com shows logos of U.S. law enforcement agencies after they seized the sex marketplace site April 6, 2018. backpage.com via REUTERS/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – A Wisconsin man who prosecutors say transported seven young women across state lines and forced them into prostitution using ads on Backpage.com before U.S. authorities shut it down was found guilty on Monday on federal sex trafficking charges.

The conviction of Erin Graham, 37, marks the latest criminal case stemming from Backpage, which became the largest sex marketing website before it was seized in April 2018 as part of an investigation that saw the website’s founders and CEO charged in a 93-count federal court indictment. They are set to go on trial next year.

Graham was found guilty of seven counts of sex trafficking following a five-day trial in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin.

During the trial victims testified they had been forced to engage in multiple acts of prostitution and turn over the money to him and his girlfriend, Patience Moore, 28, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a written statement.

He was arrested in April 2017 when a young woman ran bleeding into a Madison, Wisconsin hotel lobby and hid behind the front desk, prompting a clerk to call police. The woman told a nurse at a local hospital Graham had strangled her to the point of unconsciousness after telling him she wanted to leave.

“Through violence and coercion, Graham exploited vulnerable young women into committing commercial sex acts for his profit. In the process the victims were often degraded and robbed of their human dignity,” U.S. Attorney Scott Blader said in the statement.

Graham faces a sentence of 15 years to life in prison when he is sentenced on July 1. Moore pleaded guilty last month to a role in the sex trafficking scheme and also faces a possible life prison term.

Then-Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer agreed to shutter the website in April 2018 as part of an agreement with prosecutors that saw him plead guilty to conspiracy and money laundering charges.

A study released to Reuters last week found Backpage’s closure dealt a huge blow to the illicit world of online prostitution. Demand for prostitutes dropped 67 percent and search volume plunged 90 percent immediately after the site went offline.

Days after the Backpage seizure, President Donald Trump signed into law the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA-FOSTA. The new laws amended the ‘safe harbors’ provisions of the Communications Decency Act that had protected websites from criminal liability over third-party or user-generated content.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Bill Tarrant and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. Senate advances bill to penalize websites for sex trafficking

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted 94-2 on Monday to advance legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, setting up final passage of a bill as soon as Tuesday that would chip away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation overwhelmingly last month. It is expected to be sent to and signed by President Donald Trump later this week.

The bill’s expected passage marks one of the most concrete actions in recent years from the U.S. Congress to tighten regulation of internet firms, which have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over the past year because of an array of concerns regarding the size and influence of their platforms.

The Senate vote to limit debate on the sex trafficking legislation came as Facebook endured withering scrutiny over its data protection practices after reports that political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the private data on more than 50 million Facebook users through inappropriate means.

Several major internet companies, including Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, have been reluctant in the past to support any congressional effort to dent what is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that protects them from liability for the activities of their users.

But facing political pressure, the internet industry slowly warmed to a proposal that began to gain traction in the Senate last year.

The legislation is a result of years of law enforcement lobbying for a crackdown on the online classified site backpage.com, which is used for sex advertising.

It would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Some critics have warned that the measure would weaken Section 230 in a way that would only serve to help established internet giants, which possess larger resources to police their content, and not adequately address the problem.

Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden cast the only no votes.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. House passes bill to penalize websites for sex trafficking US

FILE PHOTO - The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, chipping away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry.

The bill’s passage marks one of the most concrete actions in recent years from the U.S. Congress to tighten regulation of internet firms, which have drawn heavy scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over the past year due to an array of concerns regarding the size and influence of their platforms.

The House passed the measure 388-25. It still needs to pass the U.S. Senate, where similar legislation has already gained substantial support, and then be signed by President Donald Trump before it can become law.

Speaker Paul Ryan, in a statement before the vote, said the bill would help “put an end to modern-day slavery here in the United States.”

The White House issued a statement generally supportive of the bill, but said the administration “remains concerned” about certain provisions that it hopes can be resolved in the final legislation.

Several major internet companies, including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc, had been reluctant to support any congressional effort to dent what is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that protects them from liability for the activities of their users.

But facing political pressure, the internet industry slowly warmed to a proposal that gained traction in the Senate last year, and eventually endorsed it after it gained sizeable bipartisan support.

Republican Senator Rob Portman, a chief architect of the Senate proposal, said in a statement he supported the House’s similar version and called on the Senate to quickly pass it.

The legislation is a result of years of law-enforcement lobbying for a crackdown on the online classified site backpage.com, which is used for sex advertising.

It would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Some critics warned that the House measure would weaken Section 230 in a way that would only serve to further help established internet giants, who possess larger resources to police their content, and not adequately address the problem.

“This bill will only prop up the entrenched players who are rapidly losing the public’s trust,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, an original author of Section 230, said. “The failure to understand the technological side effects of this bill – specifically that it will become harder to expose sex-traffickers, while hamstringing innovation – will be something that this Congress will regret.”

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker)

Senate panel advances crackdown on online sex trafficking

Senate panel advances crackdown on online sex trafficking

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday advanced legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, the most concrete action from Congress this year to tighten regulation of internet companies.

The approval came after major U.S. internet firms dropped their opposition to the measure, which amends a decades-old law that is considered a bedrock legal shield for the companies.

In a unanimous voice vote, the Senate Commerce Committee passed a measure that gives states and sex-trafficking victims a means to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

The bill rewrites Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally protects companies from liability for the activities of their users. The changes, which have bipartisan support, will still need to pass the full Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives and be signed by President Donald Trump to become law.

“This is a momentous day in our fight to hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve,” Republican Senator Rob Portman, who co-authored the bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, said in a statement.

After decades of little oversight from Washington, the internet industry is facing increased scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over concerns about their size and how their platforms were used by Russia during the 2016 election.

More than 40 senators have co-sponsored the bill, and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, has endorsed it.

“Great to see the public & private sector come together in support of this bipartisan legislation to stop sex trafficking online,” she tweeted on Wednesday.

Internet firms had long objected to proposals in Congress to rewrite Section 230, arguing the measure had allowed innovation in Silicon Valley to thrive.

But the Internet Association, a major industry group whose members include Facebook <FB.O>, Amazon <AMZN.O> and Alphabet’s Google <GOOGL.O>, announced support for the Senate bill last week after a series of changes.

Those edits clarified that criminal charges are based on violations of federal human trafficking law and that a standard for liability requires a website to “knowingly” assist in facilitating trafficking.

Some opposition remains. In a letter on Tuesday, a dozen civil liberties organizations, including the Center for Democracy & Technology and Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the bill would threaten free speech online and unevenly harm smaller companies with fewer resources to police their platforms.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins)

In reversal, U.S. internet firms back bill to fight online sex trafficking

A computer keyboard is seen in Bucharest April 3, 2012.

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Major U.S. internet firms on Friday said they would support legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, marking a sharp reversal for Silicon Valley on an issue long considered a top policy priority.

The decision to endorse a measure advancing in the U.S. Senate could clear the way for Congress to pass the first rewrite of a law adopted 21 years ago that is widely considered a bedrock legal shield for the internet industry.

Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, said in a statement it supported a bipartisan proposal advancing in the U.S. Senate making it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

“Important changes made to (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) will grant victims the ability to secure the justice they deserve, allow internet platforms to continue their work combating human trafficking, and protect good actors in the ecosystem,” Beckerman said. His organization represents tech companies including Facebook, Amazon and Alphabet’s Google.

This week, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee said it would vote next week on the bill authored by Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

The internet industry has fought such a change in the law for years, but now Washington is stepping up scrutiny on the sector on a range of policy issues after decades of hands-off regulation.

U.S. technology companies had long opposed any legislation seeking to amend Section 230 of the decades-old Communications Decency Act, arguing it is a bedrock legal protection for the internet that could thwart digital innovation and prompt endless litigation.

Bill negotiators agreed to make a handful of technical changes to the draft legislation, which Beckerman said helped earn support of the internet companies.

Those changes include clarity that criminal charges are based on violations of federal human trafficking law and that a standard for liability requires a website “knowingly” assisting of facilitating trafficking.

 

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by David Gregorio)