It’s another case of politicians with good intentions pushing harmful legislation.
The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill aimed to fight sex trafficking online.
Politicians and celebrities are saying the bill will help save victims. Victim advocacy groups argue the bill is actually harmful to sex-trafficking survivors and sex workers. And the DOJ believes the bill is “unconstitutional.”
What is this new bill really about, and what are the repercussions of it?
This is a Reality Check you won’t get anywhere else.
That’s the new public service announcement from Mary Mazzio, director of documentary “I Am Jane Doe.” The film focuses on what some people call a loophole in the law, specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The film highlights stories dating back to 2009 of families of sex trafficking victims who sued Backpage.com and lost. Lost, because reportedly Section 230 protects websites from like Backpage from being held responsible for all things posted to the site.
Soon after the documentary was released, Congress decided to get involved and a few weeks ago passed H.R. 1865, or as the bill is called, the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” or FOSTA. Sounds good right? So what specifically does it do?
The bill amends federal law to assign liability for online services, including Backpage.com, that are “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating” sex trafficking.
And it amends the hotly debated Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that quote, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
So congress fixed a big problem, right? Well, maybe not. The bill is considered government overreach by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the House Liberty Caucus, and a handful of Republicans and Democrats voted it down.
Why would they do that?
According to Ars Technica, “They argued that the law was unconstitutionally broad and that it conflicted with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants website providers broad immunity against liability for hosting material posted by third parties.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation strongly opposes the new House bill to amend Section 230. “FOSTA would punch a major hole in Section 230, enabling lawsuits and prosecutions against online platforms—including ones that aren’t even aware that sex trafficking is taking place. … If websites can be sued or prosecuted because of user actions, it creates extreme incentives. Some online services might react by prescreening or filtering user posts. Others might get sued out of existence.”
The EFF isn’t alone in its opposition. Victims advocacy groups, sex workers, free speech advocates, tech companies and others are coming forward saying that Section 230 is not broken, and that there is nothing preventing law enforcement right now from going after websites that promote sex trafficking.
Part of the reason for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation” and “to ensure vigorous enforcement of Federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking of obscenity, stalking, and harassment by means of computer.”
So what you need to know is some websites have taken very strong action to prevent sex traffickers from using their platforms as a sales tool. Craigslist shut down its adult section in back in 2010, without government force.
But what H.R. 1865 will do is threefold:
- It will actually create massive liability for platforms, websites, ISPs, web hosting providers, and online advertisers, by holding them responsible for the actions of the users.
- It will create huge wave a lawsuits from trial lawyers who will go after internet companies, because again, those companies will be responsible legally for users actions
- And it will actually make internet companies less likely to work with law enforcement because if the company knows that someone is abusing their platform, the company is now responsible.