Bipartisan agreement in Congress seems rare these days, but last week the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow websites to be held accountable for sex trafficking that happens on their platforms.
The law – called ‘FOSTA,’ short for Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – was introduced by Missouri Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner, and would change Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to allow websites to be prosecuted for any content found to “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking.” Currently, Section 230 prevents attorneys and states from suing websites for content that third parties post on their platform.
Supporters of Rep. Wagner’s bill say Section 230 has been applied too loosely in the past, and that this bill gives victims of sex trafficking real tools to go after websites that might have facilitated crimes committed against them.
But Silicon Valley tech companies, free speech advocates, and even sex workers have spoken out in opposition. Tech voices argue the bill would erode at a law which has allowed the internet thrive, and that companies might pay less attention to moderating user-generated content on their sites for fear that knowing about it could open them up to lawsuits. Sex workers say not only does the bill conflate sex work with sex trafficking, but it could also put sex workers in danger by forcing them to solicit work on the street instead of online, where they hold more control over their safety.
Do you think this legislation would be an effective way to combat sex-trafficking or do you see it as an erosion of free-speech and an open internet? If you’re a sex worker, how would this legislation impact your work?
Mary Leary, professor of law at The Catholic University of America where she studies multiple areas of law including human trafficking and technology; she is a former prosecutor and has held executive positions at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse
Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Technology and Democracy