A new bill meant to deter internet sex trafficking may have unintended consequences for sex workers, according to critics. The “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or FOSTA, targets online content that promotes or facilitates prostitution (think Backpage and the like), making it punishable by up to 10 years in prison, according to the text.
The bill, which passed the House yesterday, ostensibly gives victims and prosecutors more power to sue websites that knowingly aid sex trafficking. Tech companies and internet service providers had strongly opposed the bill, according to the New York Times, because it would “chip away at an existing law that gives internet companies broad immunity for the content that people put on their services.” However, when Congress narrowed the scope of the bill, most of the tech companies walked away from the fight.
For sex workers and advocates, though, the fight is still going strong.
While ending trafficking is clearly a good thing, trafficking and sex work are not the same, and advocates argue that the bill’s language is overly broad and could harm victims. The bill could hinder the ability of sex workers to post useful information online, simply because it is tangentially related to prostitution. Sex workers worry, for instance, that they could be prohibited from sharing critical safety tips, like posting “bad date lists.” The end result would be even more victimization among sex workers–already a vulnerable community.
I was a #sexworker organizer for years in NYC. #FOSTA would undermine almost every single thing I would tell people for how to stay alive. ALL screening, ALL peer references, ALL bad date lists I could send. #SurvivorsAgainstFOSTA
— Kate (@KateDAdamo) February 26, 2018
Free speech groups are opposed to the bill as well: According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, FOSTA would force online platforms to “police” their users’ activity. In the process, it would silence innocent voices and undermine legitimate organizations working to reduce the harm in sex work.
Broadly has a good rundown of the arguments against this bill. Or just check out the conversation around the #SurvivorsAgainstFOSTA hashtag—and they are pretty compelling. Even the Department of Justice is having some second thoughts about the bill. As Broadly points out, the DOJ filed a last-minute letter noting a “serious constitutional concern” with the legislation, and recommending that lawmakers clarify their “intent to target traffickers.”ML