In an ocean of change, Craigslist stays the same: Bland site design, truly weird ads. It also happens to be where a lot of people go to find love, so when the personals ads disappeared, the internet hit the roof. Craigslist explained it by pointing to a law called SESTA-FOSTA, which is sprinting through Congress, and the law may be a lot worse than just taking down one personals section. In theory, at least, it could be used to wipe out any website.
- SESTA-FOSTA has the noble goal of stopping sex trafficking: FOSTA is the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which passed the Senate 97-2 yesterday. It was combined with another bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, SESTA. The goals are great! The problem is how it gets there.
- This bill wants to make any website accountable if it’s used for sex trafficking: Seems reasonable, right? But there are a few problems. One, the bill doesn’t have strict definitions. It just says that if you operate a website where you are aware, or design it for the express purpose, of facilitating sex trafficking, you may be exposed to liability. In other words, in theory, at least, you can argue any website with a comments section or a forum could “knowingly” be doing this, raising the specter of lawsuits. Another problem is that this applies retroactively, something that even the Justice Department said was probably unconstitutional.
- The rules are so broad that abiding by them will be a mess: Craigslist isn’t an extreme example. Consider Tinder, Skype, Facebook, really any website where you can post words and pictures, some of which might be construed as taking money for sex. True, these platforms probably won’t meet the legal requirements. But why risk getting dragged into court? It’s cheaper to delete sections, implement restrictive filters, and otherwise make life more annoying on the internet.
- Worst of all, groups fighting human trafficking and sex workers have come out in force against the bill: Hard as it might be to believe, anti-human-trafficking groups have argued online ads are a good thing: They make it easier to find and rescue people being trafficked. In an article discussing this phenomenon, Notre Dame professor Alex Levy calls it a “war on intermediaries,” noting that the traffickers won’t stop because the ads go away, they’ll just go elsewhere. Even survivors of human trafficking have come out against the bill, and the bill doesn’t consider sex workers who are in the industry by their own consent.
- In short, the bill doesn’t really address the problem, but just sweeps it under the rug: Ending forced sex work, while ensuring those who want to be in the industry are protected and respected, is going to be a lot more complicated than getting rid of a few ads. But governments have shown an odd belief that if they just censor enough online ads and demand you give them $20 to watch porn, this will go away. It won’t, and if they really want to solve the problem, they need to buckle up for the long haul.