Amid ads for sexual services, there was one that caught my eye. The ad title was similar to the rest, along the lines of “You’ll never be bored with Tracy”.The woman sat on a mattress covered with satin sheets, wearing only a small skirt, her legs spread and her eyes glaring at the camera. What made this image different from the rest, however, were the scars in the crook of her arm, where needles had most likely been placed, the bruises on her neck, and around her eye, and the glint in her teary eyes, coming from the blinding camera flash. Beside the image was a lofty price for her services.
As a veteran content moderator at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, I can confidently say I have seen the worst the internet has to offer. I have watched terrorist beheadings, sifted through pages of hate speech, and witnessed the rape, exploitation, and trafficking of human beings.
Needless to say, I’m pretty familiar with how the underbelly of the internet is used. Unfortunately, our lawmakers do not.
In April 2018, the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the House’s Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act became law, together known as FOSTA-SESTA. As a package, the law made it illegal for online services to knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking on their platforms. It also amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold online services legally liable if their users were found to be in any way facilitating illegal sex acts over their platforms. In theory, this was supposed to lower rates of sex trafficking online. The bill passed seamlessly through Congress, with only 25 votes against, in the House, and only 2 in the Senate. In fact, many of our current presidential candidates, including Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren voted in favor of the bill.
Yet there was a vital piece of the puzzle that was left out in the drafting of the legislation. Throughout the first few months of 2018, sex workers began to sound the alarm on SESTA, claiming that their safety would be put at risk, given that they relied on many of these platforms to share vital information in the protection of their safety and their health.
I know this firsthand. Besides the gruesome images of beaten individuals, were posts that read: “ATTENTION: DO NOT ACCEPT WORK FROM THIS CLIENT”. They would describe a specific individual who habitually used date rape drugs on the workers he employed and engage in violent, non-consensual sex. Other posts would warn of sexually transmitted diseases or kidnappings. In other words, what I found was a haven for those sex workers that operate consensually and legally; a place where they could share freely without threats of harm from pimps and traffickers.
Sex workers were using the platforms to protect their health, safety, and independence by building communities, distributing harm-reduction information and techniques, and identifying and screening potential clients. Online platforms made this kind of community support possible. Without access to those platforms, information-sharing among sex workers would be difficult, and even dangerous.
Congress’ targeting of online platforms involved with sex trafficking forced those platforms to take down any pages involving sex services, including those used for legal and consensual activity, out of fear of getting caught in a storm of lawsuits. In other words, FOSTA-SESTA shuttered the safe haven for legal sex workers.
These were not unforeseen negative consequences of the law. While lawmakers and the public were debating FOSTA-SESTA, everyone from think-tank scholars and academics, to nonprofit and government actors, to members of the sex-worker community themselves, warned of these dangers, and other important concerns. Some of these observers even pointed out that if all sections involving sex services were removed, it would make it more difficult to prosecute sex traffickers — without a cyber-trail, prosecutors would have to turn to old-fashioned, more challenging methods of proving guilt.
Sadly, most lawmakers brushed off these concerns. Less than two years later, many of these concerns have been validated. In the year after the law was passed, cities across the United States saw an increase in street-based sex-work crimes. San Francisco police reported that crimes related to pimping and sex trafficking more than tripled in 2018, representing a “concerning trend.” New York City data from the same year showed a 180% increase in arrests for loitering for prostitution, despite rates of other prostitution-related crimes having declined for years. Law enforcement in San Antonio, Phoenix and Sacramento reported that arrests for street prostitution increased significantly after the law was passed.
So, what happened?
Legal sex workers who once had full control over their livelihoods, through online vetting of clients and information sharing, were forced to turn back to pimps to find work, putting them back in the streets and at risk for abuse and exploitation.
And, while the Google content moderator who has taken my place might not come across as much advertisement for illicit sex work on the internet, they will now see more signs of it on their walk home from the Google bus. Furthermore, it will appear in a much less accessible part of the web. The activity now lies in the deep corners of the dark web, where law enforcement and federal authorities struggle to uncover the necessary evidence to conduct their investigations. Sex trafficking has not disappeared; it has simply changed locale and now, because of this law, we have less control in stopping it.
Admittedly, the complex interconnectedness of the internet economy makes it hard to predict how legislation in one area will affect another. But this is why members of Congress need to fully understand the rapidly changing world that these laws will govern and the actors involved. With the 2020 election heating up, the sex worker community has begun to organize and request meetings with candidates, urging them to consider and understand their experiences, and those of other marginalized communities, when making legislative decisions. It is now time for politicians to listen, and change their approach to technology legislation and consider not only the intended targets but also the potential collateral damage.