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Last month, the corridors of power in Washington welcomed the world’s oldest profession. About forty sex workers met with thirty members of Congress to push back against the Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Survivors Against SESTA sought to open up lines of communication with elected representatives and voice their opposition to the law.
“We have a motto in sex work activism: ‘Nothing about us without us’ ” says Jinx Lierre, a self-decribed anarchist, sex worker, and activist. “And this definitely happened without us. So we are here to explain to folks what ended up happening as a result of this anti-trafficking legislation.”
Passed in April, FOSTA-SESTA aims to hold websites liable for facilitating sex trafficking. It amends the “safe harbors” provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online services from liability for the actions of their users, to exclude sex trafficking laws from immunity.
The question is whether”‘sex trafficking” can be targeted without ensnaring a host of other popular online activities. While the bill restricts liability to online platforms that are “knowingly facilitating sex trafficking,” critics contend that the vague language of the law’s text pressures websites to play it safe by aggressively censoring their own content.”
Craigslist, Reddit, and other websites have already closed down some communities and services, citing FOSTA liability concerns.
For sex workers, the immediate concern is the threat that FOSTA-SESTA poses to their physical safety. “If you don’t have the ability to check on someone’s criminal record before you meet up with them,” says Liara Roux, “you don’t know if they could be violent or not.”
John Samples, a vice president at the Cato Institute, warns that FOSTA-SESTA threatens the legal foundations for free expression on the Internet. He sees the law as the beginning of an online world “where Internet giants are locked in because they’re the ones that can afford to carry out these public enforcement roles. We could see these laws tending to create a kind of regulated monopoly.”
FOSTA-SESTA has divided Silicon Valley. Facebook and Oracle have backed the law, while Wikimedia Foundation and Engine, trade group representing startups, have opposed it.
Despite these concerns, FOSTA and SESTA became law in April with overwhelming support in Congress. Only Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) voted in opposition. The bill was signed into law by President Donald Trump in April.
“Signing the bill was very much in character for president Trump,” says Samples. “It’s a bill in which it appeals to people’s gut instincts about things. It doesn’t ask questions about – are we going about this the right way? What are the costs? All of those issues. Populists don’t ask those questions.”
In June, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) joined Human Rights Watch and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation in a lawsuit challenging FOSTA in federal court. EFF called the law’s passage “a dark day for the Internet.”
“You can’t bring down the whole system overnight,” said Lierre, who was clearly satified with the reception she received from Congress. “We can’t decriminalize sex work overnight, either. But as we continue to have dialogue with our representatives, perhaps we can shift it a little bit closer to the kind of government that we say we have.”
Produced by Todd Krainin.