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April 19, 2017

Backpage May Be Gone, But Its Screwing Continues With New House Bill

CYBERSPACE—As everyone must know by now, Backpage.com has deep-sixed its adult section, leaving at least sex workers and others seeking to make a personal connection high and dry—but don't worry: Even if they've found other online venues to ply their trade or make friends, a new bill introduced in the U.S. House by Ann Wagner (R-MO) intends to shut all those down permanently by taking away their federal immunity—even if the site owners/managers take no part in soliciting, producing or editing the ads. Of course, the vast majority of users of sites like the former Backpage have no interest in finding underage sexual companions—exactly the ones Wagner's bill, HR 1865, seeks to eliminate from the advertising pool—but according to Elizabeth Nolan Brown's blog post on Reason.com, the elimination of federal protections for webmasters provided under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was "crucial to the development of the 'World Wide Web' as we know it," would cause chaos in the online community. "Simply put, Section 230 protects web publishers and platforms—from Facebook and Reddit to The New York Times to Petfinder.com—from being legally culpable for things that third parties post or upload, at least when it comes to state crimes and civil lawsuits...," Brown wrote. "If you're found to be criminally harassing someone via Twitter, the company can't be prosecuted for it. If a magazine commenter makes libelous statements, the publication can't be sued for libel. If a 16-year-old meets a 19-year-old on Facebook and they begin a sexual relationship, Facebook can't be charged for statuatory rape. And so on. "The Section 230 bill deals not a wit with the people actually causing sexual exploitation; it simply opens up a new category of defendants that can be punished as child sex traffickers," she adds. "It gives victims—most of whom fall prey to petty pimps with few assets, not organized criminals—a civil-suit target with much deeper pockets than the criminals who exploited them, and the same for state prosecutors with asset-forfeiture fever." "The draft bill would create an exception to Section 230 for sex-trafficking offenses involving minors, and allows prosecutors to go after a website that unwittingly hosted content posted by anyone involved in the sex trafficking of minors, and would also allow any underage person who was paid for sex to sue a website even though they were indirectly involved," noted Claire Alwyne of the sex worker activist group, the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project (ESPLERP), which today condemned Wagner's bill. "This is just the latest attempt to shut down online sex work advertising," declared ESPLERP President Maxine Doogan. "It will not stop sex work. All it does is make sex workers less safe and vulnerable to violence and extortion. For example, we know a 19-year-old sex worker who had a safe business advertising on Backpage, but when that closed she experienced a dramatic drop in income and found herself vulnerable to a client/boyfriend, who is now feeding her Xanax and taking a cut of her fees. In effect, the governmental campaign against Backpage forced her into the arms of an exploiter." "This bill will have a chilling effect on speech and will hurt so many parts of the digital economy," Alwyne added. "It will be a costly nightmare for sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram to monitor third-party content to make sure there are no coded posts for trafficking—and if they miss one instance they could be charged by prosecutors or sued by victims. The social media platforms have kept low profiles so far, but they need to stand up and tell Congress to drop this bill." The "usual suspects" are, of course, all for the bill. "The Faith & Freedom Coalition is proud to support the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which will empower law enforcement to effectively combat online sex trafficking hubs that profit from and provide safe haven for modern day slave traders," said Timothy Head, the Coalition's executive director. "Rep. Wagner is shining a light on the marketplaces that contribute to the growing epidemic of sex trafficking in the United States, and Congress and the Trump administration should join her effort to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to protect our most vulnerable citizens who are caught up in the online sex trade." "It's time for Congress to clarify that this law is not intended to allow website owners to avoid responsibility when sex trafficking ads are placed on their pages," declared Carrie Gordon Earll, a VP of Focus on the Family. "Recent articles in Focus on the Family's Citizen magazine detail the difficulty experienced by trafficked minors and their parents as they attempt to hold website owners accountable and protect other children from sexual slavery." Even the Church of Scientology got into the act: "The Communications Decency Act was written to protect innocent internet providers who have no knowledge of what happens on their platforms. Unfortunately unscrupulous individuals and companies have used this to protect themselves from civil and criminal cases when they are flagrantly involved in supporting and protecting human traffickers. Our laws need to change with the times and this legislation is written with the understanding of what is happening in the online universe. It is easier to sell a child to be raped from various websites than it is to sell a motorcycle online. Your leadership has been instrumental in bringing the online sale and advertising of victims to the forefront of the dialogue." Sadly, however, the bill is also supported by the National District Attorneys Association, the Major Cities [Police] Chiefs Association, the National Association of Police Organizations and at least a couple of states' attorneys general. However, as Vocativ.com journalist Tracy Clark-Flory notes, "Hidden behind the moving rhetoric about child sexual exploitation, though, is the fact that Wagner’s bill could fundamentally change the internet as we know it. Legal experts say it would dramatically chill free speech on the web and expose websites to business-ending legal battles. The world’s most popular social media platforms—from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat—might not look anything like they do today. ... It protects websites from legal responsibility for user-generated content—meaning, it holds that Facebook isn’t liable for status updates, Twitter isn’t answerable for tweets, Snapchat isn’t on the hook for snaps, and so on. It also protects news sites with commenting sections, like NYTimes.com, from being prosecuted for things their readers say." And Wagner intends to go after her alleged "trafficking facilitators" with a vengeance. The bill would amend the federal definition of "child sex trafficking" so that these so-called online "facilitators" could face substantial fines and as much as 20 years in federal prison. Defending against the charges would likely cost millions, thus putting even completely innocent webmasters out of business, bankrupted by legal fees. But for the adult industry in general, this bill could pose even greater problems. "Under a bill like this which is framed as targeting the exploitation of children and sex trafficking, you could easily imagine the effect of that expanding to cover sexually oriented material in general," Clark-Flory quotes Emma Llansó, the director of Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project, as saying, adding that, "It’s possible that websites, anxious about potential prosecutions, would apply that to 'totally normal pornography or completely lawful businesses, like exotic dancing or massage.'" "This is not just about helping the kids, this is about all the ways in which the plaintiffs, the law enforcement, the state attorneys general could interpret regulations about the sexual exploitation of children or the sex trafficking of children to apply to things you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with them," stated law professor Eric Goldman of Santa Clara University. "Forget what the laws say today. Assume that you’re going to have parochial state legislators fueled by their state attorneys general saying, 'How can I crack down on the internet?' And this opens up the door for them to tell the sites we love the most ways they might need to run differently." ESPLERP's Alwyne notes that the organization Care2 has initiated a petition to ask California House Representative Pelosi and Senators Harris and Feinstein to oppose the bill—but considering that Wagner is a Republican, that Republicans have majorities in both the House and Senate, and that of the bill's nine co-sponsors, three are Democrats—Joyce Beatty of Ohio and Yvette Clarke and Carolyn B. Maloney of New York—there's a good chance the bill will succeed unless the adult entertainment industry gets out in full force to oppose it.

 
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