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Democrats want data on how sex workers were hurt by online crackdown 8

December 17, 2019
In The News

On Tuesday, lawmakers put out a new proposal that would require the federal government to study how a pair of laws that targeted online sex trafficking broadly kicked sex workers off the internet last year.

In the lead-up to the passage of Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) / Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) last year, advocacy groups and sex workers rallied over how the bills could make them less safe by forcing sex workers off the internet where they build communities, screen potential clients for threats, and negotiate the terms of their work with others. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) has long opposed these measures, and in an effort to convince his colleagues to repeal them, he introduced the SAFE SEX Workers Act on Tuesday. The bill would instruct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct the first national study on the legislation’s harmful effects on an already stigmatized community.

“Sex workers are disproportionately women of color, transgender, and are by definition the most marginalized in our society. They don’t have people chasing their boats. They don’t have people seeking their contributions,” Khanna told The Verge on Tuesday. “The Democratic Party says that it stands most for the marginalized. If we are to be true to that aspiration, then we have to be willing to stand with those communities.”

If the bill is approved, the HHS officials would be required to study the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers as it relates to homelessness rates, exploitation, their mental health, and whether the law has made it more difficult or less safe to negotiate with clients. The HHS would have one year to run the study and report its findings back to Congress.

Khanna’s bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in the House. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have introduced identical legislation in the Senate. Out of all the sponsors, Warren was the only lawmaker who voted to approve both SESTA and FOSTA last year. In a statement offered on Tuesday, Warren said, “As lawmakers, we are responsible for examining unintended consequences of all legislation, and that includes any impact SESTA-FOSTA may have had on the ability of sex workers to protect themselves from physical or financial abuse.”

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

It’s increasingly controversial and frequently misinterpreted, however. Critics argue that its broad protections let powerful companies ignore real harm to users. On the other hand, some lawmakers incorrectly claim that it only protects “neutral platforms” — a term that’s irrelevant to the law.

SESTA/FOSTA were crafted to tackle the issue of online sex trafficking by cutting holes in one of the most important laws governing the internet: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Generally, Section 230 relieves content hosting websites from Facebook to Craigslist from being held legally liable for what their users post on their platforms. But in passing SESTA/FOSTA, publishers were suddenly held responsible for posts and digital ads for prostitution work that included consensual sex work.

Following the passage of the bills, websites began to censor parts of their platforms — not because they were currently hosting prostitution ads, but because of the faint possibility that some third party could do so in the future. The laws are why Craigslist no longer has a Personals section. Now, sex workers say that they have broadly been forced offline, making their work far less safe.

“Sex workers have for years been talking about how access to the internet has been an important tool for safety and autonomy,” Kate D’Adamo, partner at Reframe Health and Justice, said in a statement. “After the FOSTA/SESTA passed it was sex workers who were forced to live its consequences and have been diligently collecting stories and sharing knowledge and showing the meaning of mutual aid.”

To Khanna, his SAFE SEX Workers Act is just the first step toward repealing SESTA/FOSTA. “People have an evidence-based approach, and the people in Congress realize the bill has had unintended consequences in hurting the most vulnerable,” Khanna told The Verge. But until a federal entity like the HHS presents lawmakers with data verifying what sex workers have said for years, any chance of a repeal is unlikely.