The Death of an Open Internet

Today the House votes on the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a piece of anti-sex trafficking legislation. It follows and incorporates an earlier effort by the Senate, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). The bill at issue today is actually a last minute amendment by Representative Mimi Walters (CA) that brings the worst elements of SESTA into FOSTA, creating a hybrid bill far worse than the sum of its parts. This bill has grave consequences for an open, competitive internet and for some people who use it.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has long shielded internet service providers from liability for user generated content, facilitating the internet we know today. FOSTA would likely reduce these protections. FOSTA creates a new federal crime tied to the intent to promote sex trafficking using the internet. Alone, this might be considered an acceptable, narrowly tailored measure. However, the Walters amendment incorporates SESTA’s “knowingly” standard of liability, which withholds CDA Section 230 protections from sites “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating” sex-trafficking. SESTA’s standard requires no intent to facilitate sex trafficking, relying upon the mere knowledge that one’s app or blog has been used by bad actors.

Preemptive action, driven by effective platform moderation and cooperation with law enforcement, remains the most efficient way to combat online sex trafficking. Unfortunately, FOSTA’s incorporation of SESTA’s “knowingly” standard would stymie this collaboration. If a platform attempts to prevent sex trafficking by removing and reporting offending user generated content, it risks establishing that it had knowledge of the content, rendering it liable for anything that might slip through the moderation process. Instead of encouraging platforms to combat sex trafficking, SESTA’s “knowingly” standard punishes private attempts to prevent the problem, and cripples broader attempts at effective content moderation.

A combined FOSTA/SESTA would benefit established social media platforms and trial lawyers at the expense of an open internet while doing little to prevent sex trafficking. Facebook may be well resourced enough cope with the increased legal risk imposed on hosts of user generated content, but their nascent competitors are not. Attempts to avoid running afoul of the “knowingly” standard will likely lead to greater reliance on automated filtering.

Other issues have not received the attention they merit. Libertarians (and others) often distinguish law from morality. What is immoral need not be illegal. American law in many jurisdictions does not honor that distinction and criminalizes exchanging sex for payment. Some members of Congress seem pleased this bill will better enforce those laws against people who voluntarily engage in such exchanges.

The consequence of doing so, however, should please no one. Members believe this bill will likely drive women who sell sex for a living off the internet. For them, that is a feature not a bug of the bill. But those engaged in the sex trade are unlikely to give up their work. Instead they will end up on the streets.  Why does this change of venue matter? Between 2002 and 2010, Craigslist introduced an “erotic services” section on its front page which was used almost exclusively to advertise illegal sex services. Three economists found that this section led to a 17.4 percent reduction in the homicide rate of the women in the relevant jurisdiction. They also noted “modest evidence” that the Craigslist section reduced female rape offenses. The economists concluded this reduction in violence came from the women moving indoors and matching more efficiently with safer clients. This potential increase in violence and murder should give pause to even those who deem selling sex immoral.

Congress has worked on these bills for some time through their committees. Now both bills have been thrown together, brought to the House floor, and are expected to become law, all in a week or so. Instead of this rush, the House Judiciary Committee could have finished its work, and the whole House debated and voted on the measure. The Senate and House then could have conferred and perhaps produced a bill acceptable to all. That would be “regular order” for Congress in lawmaking. It has once again been ignored.