On Tuesday, the House voted 388-25 in favor of a bill that advocates say conflates sex trafficking and sex work, and would result in more dangerous conditions for sex workers. Eleven Democrats and 14 Republicans voted no, with 18 abstentions.
The House bill, introduced by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), is called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). FOSTA would amend a section of the Communications Act of 1934, known as the Communications Decency Act of 1996, so that websites can be held criminally and civilly liable for posts about sex work or sex trafficking. The Senate has a corresponding bill, SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act),which is similar to FOSTA, which is sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
The House report on the bill conflates sex work and sex trafficking, even though the latter requires physical restraint, fraud, physical confinement and rape, and coercion. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) amended the bill and expanded its focus from sex trafficking to all prostitution, according to In Justice Today. “Prostitution and sex trafficking are inextricably linked, and where prostitution is legalized and tolerated, there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims …” the report reads.
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.
Savannah Sly, president of Sex Workers Outreach Project, told the Los Angeles Times shortly after Seattle law enforcement seized a website where sex workers posted ads in 2016, “What the removal of these advertising sites do is remove low-risk clients from the client pool. And because you have reduced demand, you’re more likely to agree to see the guy who is more dangerous.”
D’Adamo responded to the report’s assertion that prostitution is responsible for sex trafficking.
“Saying sex work is related to sex trafficking is like saying that labor is related to exploitative conditions in labor,” D’Adamo. “You wouldn’t consider this for any other form of labor. We know what best practices around addressing exploitation in labor are and it’s not making people more isolated and more vulnerable.”
D’Adamo added that without these platforms to help them stay safe, sex workers would be more reliant on a third party. Although D’Adamo noted that third party involvement is not inherently exploitative of sex workers, she said it often makes sex workers more vulnerable than if they worked on their own.
Groups opposing the legislation say that smaller startups would be at a huge disadvantage to large tech companies if the legislation passed and that the bill is ultimately ineffective in protecting sex trafficking victims.
Elliot Harmon an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international non-profit group that advocates for digital rights, wrote that the bill would “chill innovation and competition” because big companies like Facebook and Google could afford the litigation and liability and create filters to comply with the bill, but not start-ups.
The ACLU sent a letter to House representatives opposing FOSTA and called it a “serious yet unsuccessful attempt to stop the use of the Internet for sex trafficking without hindering online freedom of expression and artistic innovation.” The ACLU added, “Moreover, there is little to suggest that current law could not be used to find and punish the bad actors who are truly facilitating online sex traffickers.”
Freedom Network USA, an alliance of advocates who say they support a human rights-based approach to human trafficking wrote in its statement opposing FOSTA, “FOSTA expands the criminalization of consensual commercial sex workers under the guise of addressing sex trafficking.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality also opposes the bill, and said it would make sex workers and trafficking victims less safe.
Ivanka Trump, whose role at the White House is not entirely clear, said she supports FOSTA. The Internet Association, a group which represents firms including Amazon, Facebook and Google, supports both bills right now, according to The Hill. TechFreedom, FreedomWorks, and Citizens Outreach, support FOSTA but doesn’t support some of the SESTA provisions.
Before the bill came to a vote, Rep. Wagner said, “Congress does not believe and did we never ever believe rape was prerequisite of free and open internet.”
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) said, “It is so nice to see members of both parties, from both sides of the capitol come together on this, and through collaboration, we have crafted a bill that does more than just update a 28 year-old law. It fulfills our moral responsibility to protect the children that we represent.”
D’Adamo said that there are good ideas for keeping people safe online, but this bill isn’t one of them.
“We’d rather have a shiny policy that gets a couple settlements that isn’t thinking long term or proactively,” D’Adamo said.