Why A Sex Trafficking Bill Backed By Democrats Could Ultimately Cause Greater Harm

A bill which aims to crack down on online sex trafficking passed easily in the House late last month, 388-25. However, this bill may not be as solution-oriented as many Democrats believe.

Senate Democrats, including Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, have been championing the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (or SESTA) since August of last year. The bill hones in on section 230 of the Communication Decency Act by expanding the liability of websites which host user-generated content. Though the bill’s purpose is to target sex trafficking and the like, its vague phrasing means that it could feasibly harm all websites which deal with user-generated content. 

“To draw an analogy, the bill would be as if Congress decided that FedEx was legally liable for anything illegal it ever carries, even where it’s ignorant of the infraction and acts in good faith,” writes Slate‘s Mike Godwin. “That would be a crazy notion in itself, but rather than applying only to FedEx’s tech equivalent — the giants like Google and Facebook — it also would apply to smaller, less well-moneyed services like Wikipedia.”

The bill also allows websites to be prosecuted under state laws. So, if one state should pass a law requiring certain behavior from sites as a measure to prevent sex trafficking, sites everywhere would be required to comply.

This lack of differentiation will, experts say, inevitably result in a chaotic mess of litigation. “What you’re going to end up seeing is mass lawsuits,” Julie Samuels of Engine Advocacy tells The Verge.

The bill could also harm voluntary sex workers and the limit the ways in which they can protect themselves and screen their clients. Many sex workers rely on sites like Backpage in order to conduct business, and their safety is likely to be endangered once there is no way to conduct business online.

As HuffPost points out, ads for voluntary sex workers are likely to be conflated with ads for sex trafficking once these sites turn to automated filters to sort out their content:

Once websites are legally liable for user-related content related to sex trafficking, they’ll turn to automated filters to find and delete that content, predicted Elliot Harmon, an activist at Election Freedom Frontier. But automated filters, while useful to site moderators, aren’t an effective method of monitoring content, leading to needless censorship. Google’s PerspectiveAPI, an automated filter meant to monitor “toxicity” in online discussions, was unable to differentiate between “I am a Jew” and “I don’t like Jews.”

Because SESTA opposes sex trafficking, standing up to the legislation is certainly a tricky tightrope walk. SESTA opponents aren’t in favor of sex trafficking, but they do recognize that the bill does not fully grasp the subtle intricacies of the ways in which the internet functions.

“Obviously, no one supports human trafficking,” Samuels adds. “But you’re going to start to play with fire when you play with how the internet works.”