The House and the Senate have both passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (or FOSTA for short), but don’t let its name fool you: it will do essentially nothing to stop sex trafficking, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If signed into law by the president, FOSTA will change the dynamic between users and the sites they visit by making online platforms criminally and civilly responsible for the actions of their users.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the effects of FOSTA’s censorship will likely be felt by all. “What forms that erasure takes will vary from platform to platform,” wrote activist Elliot Harmon in a statement on the bill posted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation Thursday. “For some, it will mean increasingly restrictive terms of service—banning sexual content, for example, or advertisements for legal escort services. For others, it will mean over-reliance on automated filters to delete borderline posts. No matter what methods platforms use to mitigate their risk, one thing is certain: when platforms choose to err on the side of censorship, marginalized voices are censored disproportionately. The Internet will become a less inclusive place, something that hurts all of us.”
The bill does this by weakening Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which ensures companies aren’t liable for the things users post, share, or do on their platforms. Without the protections allotted by Section 230, for instance, Twitter could be held responsible for all of the stupid, (potentially) illegal, or libelous things tweeted on it.
Open internet advocates, academics, and lawyers alike agree that FOSTA will weaken Section 230 to the point of collapse. Supporters argue that this weakened version of Section 230 will only be used to attack platforms that are being used to facilitate sex trafficking, but the bill is written so vaguely that it opens up the floodgates for a number of frivolous suits. Worse, FOSTA applies retroactively, meaning platforms can be held liable for actions that were legal at the time.
What’s more, the legislation seems posed to censor sex trafficking victims, who often are identified through the digital footprints left online, according to Freedom Network USA, the largest American network of organizations working to fight trafficking. “Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims,” said Freedom Network USA in a statement on the matter. “When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.” FOSTA will also have a devastating impact on sex workers who use the internet and social media platforms to make their living.