Today, members of the House of Representatives will meet to discuss a bill that, if enacted, would essentially destroy one of the internet’s cardinal protections. Though the bill is titled the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (or FOSTA for short), it would do nothing to stop sex traffickers. Instead, it would hold online platforms criminally and civilly liable for the actions of their users, which would not only make it extremely difficult for smaller startups to compete with giant, well-resourced ones like Google and Facebook, but would actually also end up censoring the victims of sex trafficking, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as make things difficult for sex workers.
In the House report accompanying this updated bill targeting online sex work ads, there's some quite stunning victim-blaming: trafficking victims "appear unsympathetic," it claims, to make the case for a new Federal prostitution crime. https://t.co/1r4vpEAlQ4pic.twitter.com/AJOHlqMgoK— Melissa Gira Grant (@melissagira) February 23, 2018
FOSTA’s primary purpose is to weaken Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which — despite how painfully boring it may sound — is the glue that holds most of the internet together. Because of Section 230, if someone posts a bunch of illegal or libelous stuff on, say, Reddit, Reddit is not liable. This is pretty much common sense nowadays, as it’s been a protection since 1995. The passage of FOSTA would undermine it practically to the point of collapse. The creators of the bill want to do this in order to force platforms to curb online sex trafficking through the threat of legal recourse. They think that if, say, Facebook is held liable every time one of their users post something about sex trafficking, that the company would quickly move to stamp out trafficking on its site entirely, and the world would instantly be a better place.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter still seem to struggle with determining what is and isn’t a Nazi, or telling fake news from real. If FOSTA passes, those companies would have to put many more layers between what users submit to the world and what actually gets posted, in order to make sure absolutely nothing illicit ends up online. This could mean a total ban posts containing a certain set of predetermined keywords, or a content restriction by subject. This could mess things up especially for sex workers who normally make their living online, since the terminology is close.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the consequences of such an action would be devastating. “Together, these measures would chill innovation and competition among Internet companies,” writes activist Elliot Harmon in a statement on the bill for EFF. “Large companies like Google and Facebook may have the budgets to survive the massive increase in litigation and liability that FOSTA would bring. They may also have the budgets to implement a mix of automated filters and human censors to comply with the law. Small startups don’t. And with the increased risk of litigation, it would be difficult for new startups ever to find the funding they need to compete with Google. “
Updated 02/26/2018 7:47AM: This post was updated to reflect that the bill is being reviewed by the House on February 26.