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March 09, 2018

Efforts To Stop FOSTA/SESTA Bill Heat Up

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A combined bill supposedly aimed at curtailing online sex trafficking, but which critics and many sex trafficking survivors say would likely harm sex workers and put sex trafficking victims at greater risk, appears headed for a vote in the United States Senate. While no date has yet been set for a vote on SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), the House passed its version of the legislation, called FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) by an overwhelming 388-25 vote on February 27. The Senate now appears poised to pass the hybrid FOSTA/SESTA bill by a similar margin — spurring civil liberties groups and sex workers themselves to intensify their efforts to stop it. (If you haven't already, check out the Free Speech Coalition's #StopSESTA info page.) On Thursday, one leading civil liberties lobbying organization, the Washington D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology, spelled out a list of “downsides” to the FOSTA/SESTA legislation — in fact, headlining its online position paper “It’s All Downsides.” Foremost among the dangerous effects of the bill, according to CDT, would be potential harm to the very people that bill purports to protect: sex trafficking victims. The bill would largely overturn Section 230 of the Communications Act, which CDT says “has proven as important as the First Amendment in supporting freedom of speech online” by protecting online platforms from liability for the actions of their users. But FOSTA/SESTA flips that provision, making online site owners legally responsible for “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating” the illegal activities of sex traffickers. That new provision, however, could have two “downsides,” according to CDT. On one hand, to avoid “knowingly” helping ex traffickers, site owners could simply wash their hands entirely of any efforts to monitor online ads, and “without anyone to review (or approve/reject) posts, sex trafficking ads will continue, even flourish,” the CDT paper says. On the other hand, the provision could cause sites to flat-out censor or ban online sex ads, “forcing sex traffickers (and in turn, their victims) underground. ... While this may temporarily hinder traffickers, it will also result in the loss of a major resource used by advocates and families to identify and save victims,” the paper says. The bill would also impede the work of law enforcement in combatting actual, illegal sex trafficking, by removing online site operators as a resource of information—as well as by forcing sex traffickers offline and into the darkness where legal authorities can no longer track their activities. According to a sex worker-turned-journalist Alana Massey, writing in Allure Magazine online Tuesday, the FOSTA/SESTA legislation, if it passes the Senate, would do direct harm to sex workers themselves. “These bills target websites that are widely and inaccurately believed to be hubs of trafficking activity when it is precisely those websites that enable people in the sex trades to do their work safely and independently,” Massey wrote. “At the same time as they make it easier for authorities to find and investigate possible trafficking cases.” “When you take away a worker’s available options, they have to drop down to the next-best available option. Nobody thinks about that,” Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and a former sex worker and trafficking victim herself, told The Daily Dot. “But we don’t disappear because they get rid of our work. Our food disappears, our security, our housing … our safety, that disappears, but we don’t and our need for services definitely doesn’t disappear.”

 
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