House Just Passed Sex Trafficking Bill That Might Endanger Sex Workers

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA, conflates sex work and trafficking, which is dangerous.



The House of Representatives just overwhelmingly passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA, which would allow officials and sex trafficking victims to hold websites like legally accountable for hosting ads promoting prostitution.

FOSTA, which is closely related to the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) passed by the Senate last year, would make it illegal for websites to “knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking.” The measure passed 388-25 in the House, with advocates calling it a big win for the survivors of such horrendous crimes.

However, critics are pointing out some major, life endangering flaws in the bill.

For starters, many believe FOSTA wwill not only weaken online freedom but also criminalize websites for hosting third-party ads and content, which could have an adverse impact on the trafficking survivors.

“H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), allows for private lawsuits and criminal prosecutions against Internet platforms and websites, based on the actions of their users. Facing huge new liabilities, the law will undoubtedly lead to platforms policing more user speech,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit digital rights group, wrote. “If websites can be sued or prosecuted because of user actions, it creates extreme incentives. Some online services might react by prescreening or filtering user posts. Others might get sued out of existence. New companies, fearing FOSTA liabilities, may not start up in the first place.”

The argument here is that the bill does not help the trafficking victims as authorities can prosecute online entities for advertising sex trafficking, as it a crime. However, punishing website for third-party data can be problematic on many levels.

“Online platforms would have no choice but to program their filters to err on the side of removal, silencing a lot of innocent voices in the process,” the EFF wrote after SESTA was approved. “And remember, the first people silenced are likely to be trafficking victims themselves: It would be a huge technical challenge to build a filter that removes sex trafficking advertisements but doesn’t also censor a victim of trafficking telling her story or trying to find help.”

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the bill perilously conflates sex work and sex trafficking, which are two separate things altogether.

As Think Progress pointed out, trafficking requires physical force, violence and coercion. The publication also reported House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) amended the bill, changing its focus from trafficking to prostitution.

Now, the thing is, the internet is considered to be a safer medium for most commercial sex workers to conduct their business, as it reduces possible endangerment and violence, from which most of the people in the industry — particularly women — regularly suffer.

“When I was an organizer, we had a listserv where we sent out information about violent clients so people could screen for violence,” explained Kate D’Adamo from Reframe Health and Justice, which provides strategic consulting on harm reduction. “That doesn’t exist if you curtailed anything related to the facilitation of prostitution. Any harm reduction and screening posted online would be subjected to a federal crime punishable by 10 years.”

As D’Adamo said, it is less dangerous for sex workers to find their clients online. However, policing the internet would force the workers to seek work in isolation and be vulnerable to violence.

Unfortunately, sex trafficking has become a lucrative criminal industry that requires an immediate government crackdown, but FOSTA doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much of that.

“FOSTA was a carefully crafted and thoughtful piece of legislation that holds bad actors accountable,” stated Evan Engstrom, the executive director of Engine, a research organization supporting startups. “Congress had the chance to pass a good bill that helps law enforcement go after bad actors and protects the startups who are working in good faith to crack down on sex trafficking content on their platforms. Instead, lawmakers rushed through a flawed proposal without fully considering the consequences.”





Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Reuters, Kimberly White

View Comments

Recommended For You