There is a lot going on. I could spend entire days following the news and still feel like I was missing several important things. There is no question that it can feel as if we are in a boat rapidly gaining holes every time we turn away. In our mad rush to empty the water before we sink, it is inevitable that certain news stories get overlooked. In fact, it is not only inevitable but necessary, since the kind of manic state demanded by this constant onslaught of crises cannot possibly be sustained.
That said, there is an issue that has slipped by, barely on the periphery of our consciousness, that demands front and center attention.
On February 27, the House of Representatives passed a bill abbreviated as FOSTA, nearly unanimously, with a vote of 388–25. Last week, the Senate voted 97-2 to pass the same bill, ignoring the serious implications for internet (as well as real) freedom. While the bill supposedly prevents website from facilitating sex trafficking by making online platforms legally responsible for the content of its users, many free speech advocates, sex workers, and supporters of internet freedom insist that the bill will actually make things a lot worse.
Technically called SESTA-FOSTA by those who do not realize acronyms are supposed to make things simpler, the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act,” combined with the House equivalent, the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” rolls back portions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a law that protects online publishers from the actions of their users. Specifically, the bill adds a new section “that imposes penalties—a fine, a prison term of up to 10 years, or both—on a person who, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempts or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” What exactly “promotes” or “facilitates” prostitute is intentionally and disturbingly vague.
Philip Tracy explains that “the vague wording opens up the bill for interpretation and has critics fearing frivolous lawsuits against platforms that didn’t know trafficking was happening on their site. What’s more, the bill applies retroactively, so platforms can be held liable for hosting sex-trafficking-related content when it was legal.” Not only is this upsetting enough, but, to make matters worse, the Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that open-source sites like Wikipedia are also at risk, and that online platforms will become “overly restrictive” about their content.
“No matter what methods platforms use to mitigate their risk, one thing is certain: when platforms choose to err on the side of censorship, marginalized voices are censored disproportionately,” the EFF wrote. “If websites can be sued or prosecuted because of user actions, it creates extreme incentives. Some online services might react by prescreening or filtering user posts. Others might get sued out of existence. New companies, fearing FOSTA liabilities, may not start up in the first place.”
Also, the legislative language of the bill includes online services that aren’t classified—ad platforms of any sort, such as public and private online forums, emails, and direct messages. As Mike Godwin writes, “Some observers, including me, think this breadth is intentional—some companies and industries with their own beefs against internet companies want SESTA to be enacted as a precedent to whittle away other protections for internet services.”
Disturbingly, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix have endorsed this legislation. While they may cloak their endorsements in pro-women soundbytes, the EFF argues that these corporations have ulterior motives: they are better equipped to deal with lawsuits and content monitoring, so SESTA-FOSTA gives them an advantage against potential rivals.
Despite the fact that celebrities like Amy Schumer, Sheryl Sandberg, Seth Meyers, and Ivanka Trump have publicly supported the bill, the EFF argues that the bill censors online discussion, undermines free speech laws, and threatens internet freedom, as outlined here, here, and here.
As Emma Llansó of the Center for Democracy and Technology puts it, “The practical result of this legal risk for intermediaries will be broad-based censorship. Smaller platforms will also face the real risk that a single lawsuit could put them out of business. This bill jeopardizes not only classified ads sites but also dating apps, discussion forums, social media sites, and any other service that hosts user-generated content.”
Google recently locked access to (almost) every pornographic video on Drive, decimating years of hard work by sex workers already struggling to make ends meet, writes editor and journalist Samantha Riedel. Since SESTA-FOSTA passed, WordPress has shut down any website deemed questionable, and specifically those that mention “money” and “companionship.” Craigslist has closed its “personal ad” section. Cityvibe has shut down. The government will even pay for information.
Experts on sex trafficking also worry the bill will bring down sites that make trafficking more visible. In particular, many sex workers–who are quick to clarify that their work is consensual, not coerced, unlike sex trafficking–oppose this bill, arguing that SESTA-FOSTA will support sex trafficking. Freedom Network USA, a coalition of experts who provide services to trafficking survivors, spoke out against the bill: “Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims. When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.”
Without the online forums sex workers use to vet clients and the online resources they use to connect with the clients in the first place, these workers are more endangered than before. The bill, ostensibly written to protect them, does the exact opposite (how shocking, in a climate of rampant misogyny!). The bill also sets a dangerous precedent by ignoring the significant differences between consensual sex and sex trafficking.
For instance, a 2017 study from researchers at Baylor University and West Virginia University estimated that Craigslist’s erotic advertising section may have “reduced female homicide rates by as much as 17.4%”—as a result of being able to “move into safer indoor environments and screen clients more carefully.” That section was shut down in 2010.
The same study also found that reducing the female homicide rate by the same percentage would require an additional 200,832 police officers, at a cost of an additional $20 billion a year. “Craigslist, in other words, saved 2,150 female lives at a profoundly lower social cost,” concluded the three authors, Scott Cunningham, an economics professor at Baylor University; Gregory DeAngelo, an economics professor at West Virginia University; and John Tripp, an information systems professor at Baylor.
Alison Bass writes: “It is well-known that illegal prostitution is a dangerous occupation with a high homicide rate (2.7 percent of all female homicides in the United States involve prostitutes.) Working outdoors is particularly hazardous, with street prostitutes experiencing a homicide rate over 13 times that of the general population. That’s because violent predators (including serial killers) are far more likely to prey on street walkers they can pick up in their cars than they are on indoor sex workers who have the ability to screen clients using online tools. Indeed, as the authors of this new study note, serial killers accounted for more than one-third of prostitute victims and nearly all such serial killers were clients.”
Even the Department of Justice thinks FOSTA-SESTA is problematic, at best. In their letter offering the department’s assistance to make a bad bill better, they outline several key issues with the bill. Their critiques of the bill are far from secret: “DOJ Tells Congress SESTA-FOSTA Will Make It MORE DIFFICULT to Catch Traffickers; House Votes for It Anyway.”
A national sex work abolition group called Demand Abolition donated more than $140,000 to the King County Seattle Prosecuting Office. As if on cue, King County prosecutors increased sex buyer prosecutions. This change in enforcement tactics came after the World Health Organization and Amnesty International “endorsed research and policies showing that decriminalizing sex work, including buying sex, actually keeps sex workers safer,” writes Sydney Brownstone.
Brownstone continues: “Almost exactly two years after the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office applied for its first grant from Demand Abolition, a popular website used by both sex buyers and sex workers to review experiences—or review prospective clients—went dark. Thereviewboard.net, or TRB, allowed clients to ‘rate’ sex workers, but also allowed sex workers to compare site users’ histories with ‘bad date’ lists to avoid danger. The day TRB went down, authorities replaced its forums with the logos of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the King County Sheriff’s Office, the Bellevue Police Department, and the FBI.”
In a letter to California senators John Thune and Bill Nelson, Sex Workers Outreach Project founder Kristen DiAngelo—herself a former trafficking victim—said online publications actually provided more safety, not cover, for sex workers and trafficking victims alike. “Let me be clear: I have never met a sex trafficking victim that was set free because an online venue disappeared, but have met victims who were made less safe when those venues were shut down,” DiAngelo wrote.
So if you aren’t a sex worker, why should you care? Aside from the fact that sex work is a choice, and sometimes the only choice women have to pay their bills, cover health insurance, and feed their families, there is ample evidence that decriminalizing adult prostitution and allowing sex workers to advertise online reduces the level of violence not only against prostitutes but all women. For instance, In a recent study described by Bass, “researchers in the Netherlands found that when major cities in that country opened areas where street prostitutes could work legally, “reports of rape and sexual abuse declined by as much as 30 to 40 percent in the first two years after the zones were opened.”
Of particular disgust to me is the denial/justification evident in people who ignore this problem because they think it will not affect them. You only care about issues that affect you directly? You think something that only affects gays/Latinos/Jews/women/animals/the planet/whatever is no big deal because it doesn’t impact you? Guess what. It does and it will. There is no “them” to be ignored or demeaned. There is only US.
Please. Pay attention. Do not turn away because you think you won’t be affected — you (or someone you know) will be. If you want to get involved, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a take-action page. If SESTA-FOSTA has already threatened your livelihood, a website has been set up with some suggestions on how to cope. There are so many horrific things happening every day, ravaging minorities, women, animals, the minority, but do not let this horrific attack on the first amendment be ignored, especially by those so vehemently defending the second.