On April 11, President Donald Trump signed the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act / Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act” bill into law. FOSTA was written with just that intention, to combat the forcible sale of people for sex over the internet. It was passed in the Senate with only two “no” votes and 97 “yes” votes. As some critics of the bill have illustrated, however, the bill could do more harm than good.
FOSTA makes online platformers liable for the content posted on their sites by third parties. The bill authorizes civil and criminal lawsuits to be brought against those platforms. In essence, the law criminalizes any online content that could potentially enable sex trafficking, while making the websites on which they are published responsible.
This has already impacted the popular website Craigslist, which completely removed its personal ads section in response to the bill’s passing.
Craigslist’s statement on the removal says that the bill subjects “websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully. Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline.”
Jake Hyde, co-president of the Sex Geekdom club at UC San Diego, a sex-positive group that holds weekly discussions, told the UCSD Guardian that this would severely impact consensual sex workers who use online sites for their business.
Hyde says that the bill will push consensual sex work off the internet, making it much more dangerous.
“They’re being pushed back into the arms of pimps, and they’re having to work the streets again,” Hyde stated. “You could vet clients over the internet [and] you could talk to other sex workers and ask if a client was trustworthy without having to meet clients in person which is huge.”
“When you invalidate consensual sex work, you begin to place definitions on what consent truly is,” Hyde added. “Sex trafficking is horrible, we should be trying to end that and protect people, but we should also let people do what they want with their bodies if they’re doing it in a healthy way.”
Those who oppose the bill argue that it conflates stopping sex trafficking with stopping consensual sex work. But critics say that it accomplishes neither, and it ultimately makes sex traffickers harder to catch.
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an expert witness on human trafficking, told The Washington Post that websites were often cooperative with police investigations in turning over traffickers.
“What we should have done was facilitated the cooperation,” she told The Washington Post. “All we’ve done is gotten rid of one virtual place where this can happen. But there are thousands of others out there waiting.”
The Guardian reached out to CARE at the Sexual Assault Resource Center at UCSD. CARE Director Nancy Wahlig told the Guardian the bill looks “complicated.”
“I don’t know what the outcome may be, but when I look at sex trafficking, I really look at what the services are that we’re providing for victims, and how to get people get out safely from that,” Wahlig told the Guardian. “This bill doesn’t address that.”
Beyond just impacting marginalized sex workers and potentially making it harder to help victims of trafficking, the bill also has serious implications for freedoms of expression online.
Prior to the passage of the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union had sent a letter to Congress advising against FOSTA-SESTA. In it, it stated that the bill “is a serious, yet unsuccessful, attempt to stop the use of the Internet for sex trafficking without hindering online freedom of expression and artistic innovation.”
“Reddit took down an amateur beer-trading subreddit because they were like, ‘It’s alcohol so it’s not regulated, we could get in trouble,’” Hyde said. “If you’re not concerned about sex workers, that’s the type of censorship we’re talking about. The people on those subreddits were just using it to trade recipes and ideas for homebrewing and they were shut down because Reddit doesn’t want to get sued.”
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, “Facing the threat of extreme criminal and civil penalties … platforms would have to take extreme measures to remove a wide range of postings, especially those related to sex.”
“Websites are going to be over-protective of the content that’s used,” Hyde said. “Basically, your freedom of speech is being put into the hands of these huge corporations.”
Hyde says that he plans on creating a call to action and raising awareness with a petition for the repeal of FOSTA-SESTA. He is currently gathering signatures.
“Sex [Geekdom] is a sex-positive organization,” he said. “We want to be more than just an echo chamber — we want to cause an effect.”
Photo from ABC7