President Donald Trump has signed the Law of Allowing States and Victims to Fight Sexual Trafficking Online (FOSTA), a bill that aims to fight against sex trafficking by reducing legal protections for online platforms. FOSTA approved the Senate in March by an overwhelming majority, and has been endorsed by the Internet Association, which represents major companies such as Facebook and Google. But advocates for privacy and civil liberties say it is a fatally flawed bill that would hurt small online communities, and sex workers say it will make them less secure by disconnecting them.
FOSTA creates a new exception to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Law, which protects website operators from liability for content generated by users. It establishes that Section 230 does not apply to civil and criminal charges of sex trafficking, or to carry out a "promotion or facilitation of prostitution". The rule is applied retroactively to the sites that violate it. (Sometimes it is known as the Law to Stop Sexual Traffic or SESTA, after an earlier version of the bill).
Great news! @POTUS has signed #SESTA in the law! A memorable day for the survivors of online traffic and a great victory in our struggle to help finish the #SexTrafficking online in this country. Rob Portman (@senrobportman) April 11, 2018
FOSTA is clearly aimed at sites like Backpage.com, which are centers for illegal sex work. But it could make site operators think twice before letting users post sexual material, especially if they do not have the legal or technical resources of a large web platform. Even before the bill had passed, Craigslist eliminated its "personal" section to avoid legal risk. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called FOSTA "the most significant reversal to date of protections for online speech in Section 230".
We also do not know how much FOSTA will complement the existing law against prostitution and the fight against human trafficking. The Department of Justice closed Backpage and filed criminal charges against its founders last week, before FOSTA was signed. The owner of Rentboy.com, another sex work site, was sentenced to prison for promoting prostitution last year. And FOSTA combines the interruption of sex trafficking with the interruption of consensual sex work, making it difficult for sex workers to search clients or form communities through online services. Now that the bill has become law, we will see exactly how web platforms and sex workers that operate online respond to this new legal responsibility.