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House Passes 'Online Sex Trafficking' Bill That Critics Say Actually Silences Survivors

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Mar 01, 2018. 18 comments

A bipartisan coalition of U.S. representatives has voted to pass the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), as well as an amendment introduced by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) aimed at holding websites like Backpage.com accountable if third parties use them to traffic sex. The problem, say sex worker advocates, is that the bill not only does nothing to actually help sex trafficking victims—it makes sex work a federal crime in the process.

FOSTA follows the contours of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), passed by the Senate in November, which would make it illegal for Backpage and similar websites to “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking.” Criticism of FOSTA and SESTA has focused on how both bills weaken internet freedoms; after SESTA’s passage, the Electronic Freedom Foundation wrote about the way enforcement is as likely to silence trafficking victims as traffickers due to the limitations of technology:

Some SESTA supporters imagine that compliance with SESTA would be easy—that online platforms would simply need to use automated filters to pinpoint and remove all messages in support of sex trafficking and leave everything else untouched. But such filters do not and cannot exist: computers aren’t good at recognizing subtlety and context, and with severe penalties at stake, no rational company would trust them to.

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. 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.

This week the EFF reiterated this position on FOSTA, but also emphasized its piecemealness, calling it “a Frankenstein bill” that “would be a disaster for Internet intermediaries, marginalized communities, and even trafficking victims themselves.” And beyond being flawed, it also specifically collapses the very important delineation between trafficking and sex work, further criminalizing the latter while endangering sex workers. From ThinkProgress:

Kate D’Adamo, a partner with Reframe Health and Justice, a consulting collective focused on economic justice and public health, said sex workers often use online platforms for harm reduction.

“When I was an organizer, we had a listserv where we sent out information about violent clients so people could screen for violence,” she said. “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.”

D’Adamo explained that when sex workers can go online to find clients, they are less vulnerable to violence than if they did so on the street. When sex workers are more worried about law enforcement attention, they seek out more isolated areas to work and as a result, they experience more violence.

FOSTA passed overwhelmingly in the house, with just 25 nays—14 Republican, 11 Democrat. It is now headed to the Senate.

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