President Donald Trump today signed the controversial FOSTA/SESTA bill into law, paving the way for more law enforcement actions against websites that facilitate prostitution.
Websites started shutting down sex-work forums even before Trump signed the bill. Craigslist removed its “Personals” section, Reddit removed some sex-related subreddits, and the Erotic Review blocked any user who appears to be visiting the website from the United States.
The bill becoming law will likely lead to more “voluntary” site shutdowns or law enforcement actions against sites that continue to be used for prostitution. The White House said the action “makes it a Federal crime to own, manage, or operate a website with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.”
Law equates trafficking and prostitution
The SESTA and FOSTA acronyms (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) suggest that the new law is aimed at cracking down on sex trafficking. But the law barely distinguishes between trafficking and consensual sex work.
Operators of websites that let sex workers interact with clients could face 25 years in prison under the new law. While Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides website operators with broad immunity for hosting third-party content, the new law eliminates that immunity for content that promotes or facilitates prostitution.
The new law was inspired mostly by the existence of Backpage, but recent events demonstrate that law enforcement authorities already had the legal tools they needed to take action against that site. Federal law enforcement authorities shut Backpage down last week, even though SESTA hadn’t been signed into law yet.
Sex workers often use websites to screen clients and avoid dangerous situations. Seven sex workers explained how the loss of Backpage will affect them in an article published yesterday on The Cut.
“I felt safe with [Backpage]. I choose whether or not I want to do something,” said Natalia, who used Backpage to help pay for graduate school, according to The Cut article. “If I go work somewhere else—whether it is the street, whether it is for somebody else—I won’t have the freedom to do that and I won’t feel safe anymore.”
“Backpage gave me a basic screening tool, which led to money, food, and shelter… Backpage didn’t turn me into a sex worker any more than YouTube can turn people in musicians or comedians,” a woman named Sarah told The Cut.
Even sex workers who work where prostitution is legal have concerns about where the crackdown will go next.
“Up until recently, legal sex workers like myself never had anything to fear, as we were following the letter of the law,” escort Alice Little (Twitter page, potentially NSFW) of the BunnyRanch in Nevada, where prostitution is legal, told Ars this week. “Unfortunately, spurred on by SESTA/FOSTA’s sex worker censorship, the No Little Girl group is now calling for a repeal of Nevada’s brothels. Sex workers as a whole are under attack, and the next few weeks will prove to be very interesting and potentially life changing for those in this community.”
When signing the bill, Trump said, “This is a very important day. If we work together, we can get the criminal traffickers off our streets and off of the Internet.”