At 11am Eastern Time on Wednesday, President Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) into law.
While FOSTA and SESTAspecifically target websites that facilitate “sex trafficking,” theirimpact is actually much broader. The acts will curb free speech on the internet while taking away some of the only spaces for sex workers to safely work.
FOSTA and SESTAmake publishing digital content to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person” punishable by a hefty fine or up to 10 years in prison. These billspenalize website for their what their users do on their platforms by reducing legal protections at a national level, making themthe first pieces of federal legislationto hold websites legally liable for user-generated content.
The Electronic Frontier Foundationexplains thatthe passage ofFOSTA and SESTA will, thus, “force online platforms to censor their users.” Specifically, the bills serve undermineSection 230, a law that protects websites from liability over their users’ speech. We are only able to share information so freely on the internet because of Section 230, which is now put into question.
They will also allow individual states to retroactively prosecute offenders.
It is already illegal to facilitate sex traffickingso the legislation actually doesnothing more than curtail freedom of expression on the internet and harm sex workers.
The Justice Department already shut down and filed criminal charges against Backpage last week, just days before SESTA was signed into law (which was in clear preparation for the imminent bill). Craigslist’s personals ad section, a popular forum forsex workers, was also shut down by the administrators before the Department of Justice could seize it.
In an update following FOSTA’s passage today, Craigslist expressed concern for the ability to continue hosting the website under the new law.
“U.S. Congress just passed HR 1865, ‘FOSTA,’ seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully. Any tool or service can be misused,” the site claimed in a statement. “We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”
“To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through Craigslist, we wish you every happiness!” it concluded.
SESTA is already impacting millions of people on and offline. Sex work is much more common than you think, with more than one million people working in the industryin the United States. In an interview with Vice, Lola, an organizer with the group Survivors Against SESTA, illustrated how the new law is a life-or-death situation.
“I know so many people who were able to start working indoors or leave their exploitative situations because of Backpage and Craigslist,” she explained. “They were able to screen for clients and keep themselves safe and save up money to leave the people exploiting them. And now that those sites are down, people are going back to pimps. Pimps are texting providers every day saying ‘the game’s changed. You need me.’”
The legislation is forcing sex workerswho are disproportionately women of color, trans women, and victims of violenceto take on unscreened clients. “SESTA is putting people on the streets, where we face more violence and harassment and arrest and brutality by the police,” Lola explained, adding that the legislation is“killing us.”
At this point, there is little more that we can hope for than new laws following guidelines from multinational organizations like Amnesty International. Amnesty explains the best way to reduce violence against sex workers is to legalize sex work entirely. The advocacy groupbelieves decriminalization shouldinclude overturning laws “that prohibit associated activitiessuch as bans on buying, solicitation and general organization of sex work.”
“This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police,” Amnesty claims. “Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.”
The nonprofit furtherwarns against laws that “fail to distinguish between consensual sex work and human trafficking,” of which SESTA is a prime example. These types of legislationnot only harm sex workers but also trafficking victimswho will simply be sold in other locations with the passage of bills like what we’re seeing today.
We can hope that SESTA being signed into law will help more people understand the struggles of sex workers. This week a new blockchain company even offered $25,000 for sex workers to share their stories about congressional clients who supported SESTA. As more people speak out against the new law, all of usmust recognize the ways in which sex workers need our support.
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