The SESTA-FOSTA bill makes platforms more liable for their users’ speech, and that’s not good for anyone.
The internet just became a more hostile place for sex workers, victims of sex trafficking, and fans of internet freedom: The Senate voted 97-2 to pass SESTA on Wednesday, making websites liable for what their users say and do on their platforms. From here, it will go to the president to be signed into law.
Advocates for the bill—a mashup of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA)—claim that it will help curb sex trafficking online. But because it could punish platforms for users’ behavior—specifically, discussions of prostitution and sex trade—several internet freedom groups have vocally opposed the language of the bill. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a “win for censorship.” The Department of Justice called portions of the bill that shift liability of speech from users to platforms a “serious constitutional concern.”
“No one is surprised,” sex worker rights advocate Kate D'Adamo told me in an email following the vote. “And this has been an incredible mobilizing effort for a community who is often impacted and almost never heard, and if nothing else, it has shined a light on that glaring gap and how little advocates understand how things work on the ground when laws are passed. The community is already mobilizing around protecting the little safety sex workers are afforded, and organizations are pouring out to support those efforts.”
On Wednesday, women’s rights advocacy groups wrote a letter urging Congress to shelf the bill, saying that it would “undermine efforts to protect sex workers from violence, provide harm reduction services, and identify and support survivors of trafficking by pushing trafficking further underground. It also violates sex workers’ rights to freedom of association and free speech.”
Those “reduced services” include forums and websites where workers literally band together to survive. Victims of trafficking, as well as consensual sex workers, use social media networks like Twitter and Facebook to warn and protect one another. Opponents to the bill are concerned that it will create more sex trafficking—by driving workers outside for clients, or taking away their ability to find or screen new clients online.
“People who target sex workers for violence, stalking, and exploitation KNOW that we don't have recourse through traditional channels—the police and judicial systems fail us, many sex workers don't have familial resources, and the media and society at large engage in victim blaming of sex workers on a grand scale,” adult performer Lorelei Lee told me, when we spoke previously about the bill over email. “What we have is each other. So the ability to share information quickly and widely in our community is the main way that we stay safe.”
D’Adamo said that while it’s not yet clear what the ramifications to this passage will look like, it shows a disregard for the health and well-being of those who trade sex. “I do know that after the years of sex workers being targeted and platforms being shut down or closing down because of harassment—this is a community committed to survival and resilience.”