Contact Briq House: Communications Director, SWOP USA – Briq@swopusa.org
Senator Rob Portman has introduced a bill to congress that would be detrimental to Sex Workers, small businesses, and tech giants alike. The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act or SESTA, S. 1963, however cleverly titled, is not at all what it claims to be. It boasts of being the answer to uncovering and punishing those engaged in sex trafficking online but what it actually is about is internet censorship. It is an attempt to remove the protection websites are currently offered under Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is in place to uphold freedom of expression on the internet and protects websites from being liable for what a third party might post outside of their knowledge. If this bill passes, any person or business online could be subject to civil or state penalties if the authorities “believe” there is any trafficking or condoning of trafficking on your site. How is that determined? What activities will they consider illegal online? What about consenting adults engaging in sexual online courtship? What about our favorite fetish and cruising sites? What about individuals who enjoy posting nude or nude implied photos of themselves online? Would we then have to be worried about our naked photos being considered illegal solicitation?
The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking act conflates Sex Trafficking with consensual Sex Work. It wants to target all sites the way the government targeted Backpage siting that it was used solely for the purpose of trafficking which is absolutely not true. SWOP-USA believes anyone who is in the Sex Industry against their will should be offered every resource and opportunity to get out. SWOP also believes those who willfully engage in the sex industry should have the freedom to work as they choose and be offered the same protection as any other type of labor worker. There are many Sex Workers who rely on meeting and screening clientele online as a way to stay safe. Without proper ways to establish identity, set service boundaries, and screen people properly, this bill could turn casual meet ups into life or death situations.
It is time to act! Please contact your local state representatives and tell them to fight this bill!
Co-Sponsers of this bill: Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bob Casey (D-PA) Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Corker (R-TN), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), James Lankford (R-OK), Mike Lee (R-UT), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL)
Briq House, Communications Director – SWOP USA
For more detailed information about the affects this bill could have on your personal freedom please take a moment to read this press release from Alex Andrews of NSWP and SWOP-Orlando:
Internet Censorship Bill Would Spell Disaster for Speech and Innovation
This new bill in Congress would threaten your right to free expression online. If that weren’t enough, it could also put small Internet businesses in danger of catastrophic litigation.
Don’t let its name fool you: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693) wouldn’t help punish sex traffickers. What the bill would do (PDF) is expose any person, organization, platform, or business that hosts third-party content on the Internet to the risk of overwhelming criminal and civil liability if sex traffickers use their services. For small Internet businesses, that could be fatal: with the possibility of devastating litigation costs hanging over their heads, we think that many entrepreneurs and investors will be deterred from building new businesses online.
Make no mistake: sex trafficking is a real, horrible problem. This bill is not the way to address it. Lawmakers should think twice before passing a disastrous law and endangering free expression and innovation.
While SESTA’s purpose may be only to fight sex trafficking, it brings a deeper threat to many types of free expression online. The bill would create an exception to Section 230 for enforcement of any state criminal law targeting sex trafficking activities. It would also add an exemption for federal civil law relating to sex trafficking (as it stands now, Section 230 already doesn’t apply to federal criminal law, including laws against trafficking and receiving money from child sex trafficking).
There’s a long history of states passing extremely broad censorship laws in the name of combatting trafficking.
Let’s unpack that. Under SESTA, states would be able to enact laws that censor the Internet in broad ways. As long as those laws claim to target sex traffickers, states could argue that they’re exempt from Section 230 protections. As Eric Goldman points out in his excellent analysis of SESTA, Congress should demand an inventory of existing state laws that would fall into this new loophole before even thinking about opening it.
There’s a long history of states passing extremely broad censorship laws in the name of combatting trafficking. Just this year, legislators in numerous states introduced the Human Trafficking Prevention Act, a bill that has nothing to do with human trafficking and everything to do with censoring sexual expression. Imagine all of the ways in which state lawmakers would attempt to take advantage of SESTA to curb online speech in their states. If they can convince a judge that the state law targets sex trafficking, then SESTA applies. That would create a ton of uncertainty for Internet intermediaries.
SESTA would compromise the Good Samaritan provision by imposing federal criminal liability on anyone who merely knows that sex trafficking advertisements are on their platform. Platforms would thus be discouraged from reviewing the content posted by their users, cancelling out the incentive to review, filter and remove provided by the Good Samaritan provision.
That puts companies that run online content platforms in a difficult bind. Any attempt to enforce community conduct guidelines could be used as evidence that the company knew of trafficking taking place on its service. (As we mentioned above, federal criminal law already applies to intermediaries.) The two choices facing platforms would seem to be to put extremely restrictive measures in place compromising their users’ free speech and privacy, or to do nothing at all.
Alex Andrews – NSWP North American Representative, SWOP-Orlando