THE STAKES HAVE NEVER BEEN HIGHER FOR SEX WORKERS, WHO ARE STARING DOWN THE DOUBLE BARRELS OF THE DEADLY LEGISLATIVE COMBO SESTA/FOSTA. LEARN WHY THEIR FIGHT IS OURS AND HOW THESE RECENTLY ENACTED LAWS DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, together called SESTA/FOSTA, is the union of two bills with one true purpose. Those who support it would have you believe it prevents websites from facilitating sex trafficking, but in actuality it has little if anything to do with stopping traffickers or helping trafficking victims. The legislative package was signed into law in April 2018, and those it affects most rightfully feared for the worst. The fallout was immediate.
Like a Trojan horse—minus the subtlety—SESTA/FOSTA hides its intent. It is designed to curtail the sex trade by making it unnecessarily dangerous. Effectively, what this legislation does is sidestep— no, demolish—the sanctity of Section 230. This is a critical provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act and the defense perimeter that protects free speech on the internet, specifically, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In short, Section 230 protects online publishers from what their users generate. SESTA/FOSTA subverts this safeguard under the guise of stopping traffickers online, stating, “The bill amends the federal criminal code to add 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 we’re seeing is not so much a war on trafficking as a full-on frontal assault against consensual sex workers who rely upon sites like Backpage.com to promote their services. The sites not only helped them to pay their rent, but also protected them from violence. You see, Backpage was more than just a means to advertise—it also allowed users to vet clients online from the safety of their home, rather than working out in the open, where they are exposed. Though the site had been targeted previously for facilitating illegal sex work, it was also a high-value resource for law enforcement officers across the country in tracking and stopping sex traffickers.
Backpage had long been in the government’s crosshairs, and SESTA/FOSTA was the kill shot that took it down. Earlier attempts to hold them liable for illegal content were rejected under Section 230, but not anymore. After the Senate voted to pass SESTA in March, Craigslist shuttered its infamous “Personals” section, and on April 6 Backpage was seized by the federal government, with seven people, including its two cofounders, indicted under a grand total of 93 counts of money laundering and facilitating prostitution.