I can’t say I was surprised when the Internet Association announced on Friday that the major internet companies would be halting their lobbying efforts against the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking (SESTA) bill. While representatives for Google, Facebook, and Twitter were enjoying Day Three of occasionally intense inquiry by the Senate Judiciary Committee over foreign meddling in our politics via social media, one thing became abundantly clear: the generic defense that everything online is free speech isn’t going to fly. Not with lawmakers. And not with the American people, it seems.
The reversal on SESTA did rankle the EFF, though, which announced almost immediately that “the Internet Association does not speak for the web,” leaving us to conclude that, presumably, the EFF speaks for the web. Whatever that quite means. Perhaps what the “digital rights” group is most concerned about is that when SESTA passes, which it almost certainly will, people might notice the lack of chilling effect it will have on free speech and think, “Hey, maybe these guys who speak for the web are prone to exaggeration.”
After all, these organizations have spent a lot of energy telling Americans that the liability shield extended to online providers in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the reason the web has thrived at all. And one way to understand the extent to which this is hyperbole is to note that the amended SESTA bill, which the Internet Association now backs, does not include any changes that would make it any less a “censorship bill” if it had ever been one in the first place.
In fact, the substantive amendments now agreed upon primarily provide for changes to Chapter 77 of the U.S. criminal code (Title 18), which addresses both criminal and civil litigation that may stem from acts of slavery and trafficking, including trafficking of minors for the commercial sex trade. One amendment tightens up the definition of “participation in a venture” that facilitates or profits from crimes committed under §1591 (sex-trafficking of children) by describing this as “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating a violation of…”. The other major amendment to Chapter 77 adds a section to the civil remedies for all slavery and trafficking-related crimes—allowing State Attorneys General to file civil claims in federal court where such remedies may be appropriate.
The EFF insists that SESTA will place smaller entities, which don’t have the financial/legal resources of Google and Facebook, at greater risk of potential litigation by victims of sex trafficking. They further assert that, according to various experts on trafficking, SESTA will not help victims and may even place them in greater jeopardy.
SESTA Doesn’t “Go After” Anyone
It’s important to understand that the purpose of SESTA is not trafficking interdiction itself. All the change to the CDA really does is lower one narrowly-defined barrier for alleged victims of sex trafficking to potentially hold a web business liable, if their owners knowingly profit from their victimization as minors trafficked in the sex trade. That’s a lot of conditions and a fairly high burden to meet in a litigation. Yet, the EFF cites critics like Kristen DiAngelo of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), which paints a picture of SESTA driving sex workers off the web and back onto the streets where they are more likely to be preyed upon by traffickers.
Organizations run by former victims should be afforded considerable respect with regard to their views on stemming trafficking; but I think DiAngelo misconstrues the nature of SESTA when she writes in her letter to Senator Thune, “To victims of sex trafficking, the idea of shifting liability to publishers for the actions of actual pimps and traffickers is terrifying.” But that isn’t what SESTA does. While I agree with Ms. DiAngelo that the broader spectrum of criminal justice vis-a-vis prostitution is often hypocritical and too frequently criminalizes victims rather than traffickers or customers, SESTA has nothing to do with criminal prosecution at all. It only slightly amends the landscape for civil action, and it should no more lead to a flood of lawsuits by trafficking victims anymore than we’ve seen mass litigation by victims of child pornography since the CDA became law in 1996.
To put it in practical terms, a group of sex workers could theoretically start their own website tomorrow and maintain that site without concern that SESTA has made them more vulnerable to litigation. As explained in an earlier post, the only issue of criminal or civil liability for Backpage* is whether its owners engaged in willful blindness, or worse, with regard to ads that either explicitly or implicitly promoted minors for sex. What SESTA does is actually limit the liability for the site owners who do take affirmative steps to weed out, mitigate, or report attempts to advertise minors on their platform. If SWOP were interested, for instance, in fostering safer online environments for sex workers, SESTA should actually be conducive to that effort.
Perhaps if the EFF would stop calling SESTA a censorship bill and explain in some clear example how this legislation could possibly cause any of the systemic problems they claim, theirs would be a counterpoint worth considering. Meanwhile, they may want to read the moods of both Congress and many citizens, who seem far less receptive to the universal “hands off my web” message that has prevailed up until now. The danger, of course, is that there may yet be an actual threat to free speech in digital space, and if that happens, who will speak for the internet? Surely not the organization that has cried wolf so many times.
© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.