A Senate hearing on Tuesday revived concerns from internet activists about the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017,” which they claim will endanger free speech within online communities.
The bill, known as SESTA, is sponsored by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and will amend Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934. Section 230 currently protects the rights of online communities to block and screen offensive content on their own rather than via government regulation.
The bill was introduced on August 1 after Portman chaired a committee that conduced a two-year investigation of ad-hosting site Backpage for sex trafficking violations. At the end of the investigation, the committee released this report that concluded that Backpage had not only allowed up child sex trafficking and coerced sex trafficking to occur on its site, it had covered up evidence in the process.
Thus far, SESTA has received bipartisan support, with prominent senators like John McCain and Richard Blumenthal as cosponsors. All 50 state attorney generals signed a letter endorsing the bill, according to testimony given Tuesday. The hearing also featured testimony from the Yvonne Ambrose, whose daughter lost her life in a sex trafficking-related killing.
So, why oppose a bill designed to curtail sex trafficking? For starters, many of the posters on Backpage are above the age of consent and offering their services voluntarily. Because while the site can be an avenue for trafficking, it can be a boon for those who are willingly engaging in sex work by getting them off the streets, in control of their own advertising, and out of the hands of pimps.
An internet-famous example of this practice can be found in Zola’s legendary Twitter story.
And opponents to the bill say that sex trafficking is not the only thing the bill would curtail.
“SESTA is just like SOPA/PIPA. It won’t accomplish what the sponsors want it to, but it will break the Internet,” argued Fight for the Future, a non-profit digital rights group.
On StopSESTA.org, a hub set up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another digital rights group, several internet activists voiced concerns about how the implementation of SESTA could alter the social media landscape or lead to further censorship.
Essentially, any site that has user-generated content — Twitter, reddit, Wikipedia, etc. — could be policed by the government or banned outright.
Comment threads like the one below, about SESTA on reddit, could be put under scrutiny by the government. While some online communities some of the worst places on Earth, especially in the case of child porn rings on the dark web, activists argue that the SESTA would encourage big sites like Reddit or Facebook or Twitter to engage in censorship practices.
“Shifting more liability to Internet platforms for their users’ speech will inevitably lead to those platforms more tightly monitoring and restricting users’ activities,” Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electric Frontier Foundation, said. “Again and again, when platforms clamp down on their users’ speech, marginalized voices are the first to disappear.”
Others argue that the protections of Section 230 actually do more to expose bad behavior on and offline than a more strictly regulated internet would. SESTA is going after the wrong thing, basically:
“Section 230 doesn’t cause lawlessness. Rather, it creates a space in which many things — including lawless behavior — come to light,” Alexandra Levy, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who specializes in human trafficking, tells the EFF. “And it’s in that light that multitudes of organizations and people have taken proactive steps to usher victims to safety and apprehend their abusers.”
And this bill isn’t the only one making of its type making the rounds through Congress. Another bill, the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” was introduced to the House of Representatives in April by Congresswoman Ann Wagner and seeks to make even more changes to Section 230 than SESTA.
It remains to be seen how quickly this bill will move forward, but if you’re concerned about preserving freedom online, you might want to keep an eye on it.