On Wednesday, the Senate passed an "anti-sex trafficking" bill that has far wider consequences that protecting victims of sex trafficking—and not all of them good.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, as well as the House version of the bill (the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA), amends Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230), meaning that for the first time in the history of the internet, websites where sex work is advertised, discussed, or bought and sold could be held criminally liable. The implications of this are huge: If sex workers are advertising on TrumpsDumps.net or PrincePence.gov or CraigsLips.cum, the proprietors of those websites could face criminal charges. That's like The Stranger being sued if Slog readers decided to use the comments section to advertise black market kidneys, which, honestly, I would not put past some of you. Advocates for free speech and an open internet say this could have a serious chilling effect, leading to censorship and the stifling of innovation.
As internet lawyer Cathy Gellis wrote, "It isn’t just the big commercial services like Facebook who need Section 230, but Internet service providers of all sorts of shapes and sizes, including broadband ISPs, email providers, online marketplaces, consumer review sites, fan forums, online publications that host user comments. … Section 230 even enables non-commercial sites like Wikipedia. As a giant collection of information other people have provided, if Section 230’s protection evaporates, then so will Wikipedia’s ability to provide this valuable resource."
But it's not just startups and Wiki editors who are worried about this implications of this bill. Sex workers have been campaigning against it, in part because online advertising actually makes their jobs safer by giving them an opportunity to vet potential clients.
"Every time Rentboy or Backpage or any of those sites are shut down, it's actually putting sex workers more at risk, because we don't have a way of verifying that this person is who they say they are," BriqHouse, a Seattle sex worker and the communications director for the Sex Workers Outreach Project, told me last year.
Instead of harmful laws like this, many sex workers advocate for decriminalization, which would allow them to do their jobs without fear of imprisonment.
The coalition of people against SESTA and FOSTA is long and truly bi-partisan, including the Sex Workers Outreach Project; the Freedom Network, the nation's largest network of anti-trafficking organizations; and even the Justice Department. Invanka Trump, on the other hand, is for it.
Looking forward to the upcoming #FOSTA-#SESTA vote on the Senate floor. Passing this important piece of legislation will bring us one step closer to ending sex trafficking online & restoring safety in our communities.
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) March 20, 2018
Regardless of the opposition, SESTA passed in the Senate Wednesday by a vote of 97 to 2 and is headed to Donald Trump's desk.
I have reached out to local sex workers for comment and will update with comment.
P.S. Resident big tech watchdog Eli Sanders tells me that Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act is often deployed as a shield in realms that go way beyond the sex trafficking debate. For example, when Facebook recently wanted to kill a bill in Olympia related to online political ad transparency, its lobbyist cited Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act— essentially arguing that it can’t be Facebook’s responsibility to know who’s a political advertiser and who is not. The bill died before Facebook’s argument about political ads and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could be tested.