A new law touted as a tool to crack down on sex trafficking will drastically expand online censorship and endanger the people it intends to protect.
The “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act”, nicknamed “SESTA/FOSTA”, increases the power of state and federal prosecutors to target websites that host ads for sexual services. In doing so, it makes websites legally liable for the behavior of their users, and undermines the fundamental mechanisms that ensure free expression on the internet.
SESTA/FOSTA was proposed after a two year Senate subcommittee investigation into sexual classified listings. It is nominally aimed at stopping sex trafficking and protecting survivors of sexual violence. But this legislation will not accomplish those goals—it will instead shut down online speech, while pushing sex workers offline and into the streets.
Despite widespread opposition from sex workers and civil liberties groups, President Trump signed SESTA/FOSTA into law today after it was approved by Congress in March. It goes into effect immediately, and is already having detrimental impacts on online expression, and on the safety and livelihoods of sex workers.
The repercussions have been quick. Just two days after the bill was passed by Congress, Craigslist shut down its personals section completely. For years, Craigslist’s personals section offered a way for people to connect with others living in a given geographic area.
"Any tool or service can be misused," Craigslist said in its in a statement about the bill. "We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline."
Sex workers, reportedly reeling from the shutdown of Craigslist as a relatively safe platform, were dealt another blow last week. Federal authorities shut down Backpage.com and accused its founders of money laundering and facilitating prostitution. Backpage functioned similarly to Craigslist, allowing users to advertise services, including those of a sexual nature.
Lawmakers had claimed for years that Backpage enabled human trafficking, and even cited it as evidence of the need for legislation like SESTA/FOSTA. Some supporters of the legislation have even given it credit for the takedown, despite the fact that it took place before the law was enacted and did not include trafficking charges—an irony noted by journalist Melissa Gira Grant, who has been monitoring both the legislative process and the Backpage takedown closely. While the charges against Backpage may not be directly related to the new law, they set a worrying precedent for what is to come.
Many sex workers say that websites like Craigslist’s personals section and Backpage.com are a tool through which they can screen clients ahead of time and keep themselves safe. Some say these platforms freed them from pimps, and allowed them to take control of their own businesses.
“Attempting to deter sex workers from their jobs by removing advertising and screening platforms is akin to pushing sex work “underground” and in the streets – where workers have less power in relation to their clients and where sex workers are at greater risk of arrest and police violence,” the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA wrote in a statement. “Shutting down advertising websites and punishing those who attempt to make sex work safer serves to push sex workers further into the shadows and cuts sex workers off from vital social services, from each other, and increases vulnerability to violence.”
Beyond the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA for the livelihoods of sex workers, the bill will have concerning implications for all internet users. SESTA/FOSTA opens the door to other types of exceptions to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, further eroding freedom of speech online.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is frequently described as the most important law on the Internet. Authorities can already prosecute online platforms that break the law—but under Section 230, websites are not held legally responsible for the actions of their users.
With the new legislation in effect, any website allows its users to create content, whether it be comments, tweets, or videos, could be legally targeted. This could pressure sites to remove opportunities for user submitted information and interaction, and turn to alternative content monitoring like automated filters to protect themselves.
“We are concerned that the bill would significantly chill the explosion of online, political, artistic, and commercial speech without improving the plight of sex trafficking victims,” the ACLU wrote in its letter of opposition to the bill.
Efforts to end sex trafficking and protect survivors of sexual violence are important. But legislation like SESTA/FOSTA will fail in its attempts to do so, endangering legitimate websites, censoring internet users, and silencing sex workers in the process.