On Wednesday, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act–dubbed “FOSTA” for short–was signed into law. The law is intended to bolster accountability among websites that–directly or indirectly–facilitate sex trafficking.
The new legislation comes on the heels of a large-scale indictment against Backpage.com–a website that hosted third-party classified ads. Many ads on the site were for prostitution and child sex trafficking. Backpage has been charged with 93 counts of sex-trafficking related charges. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice seized the website.
What the new law does
The new law sends a strong message to websites: if you’re hosting questionable content, you can be held liable–even if you’re not the one creating the content. Under FOSTA, any website that knowingly hosts content which enables or promotes prostitution or sex trafficking can be held liable. The law increases criminal penalties for such offenders and allows sex trafficking victims to take civil action against such companies to recover damages.
In addition, under the new law, state attorneys general can prosecute such websites, even if the defendants violated federal prostitution law. Putting this authority in the hands of the states–rather than federal authorities–is expected to expedite the pursuit of justice.
Reaction to the law
Many have applauded the new law, hoping that enhanced website accountability will help curb instances of such crimes.
However, some sex worker advocates claim that websites provided women with a safe space to screen clients, and also provided an open platform for the government to track such activities. They argue that FOSTA will not stop sex trafficking from happening–it will just move it to spaces that are harder to control, such as the dark web, social media or outside the nation’s borders.
In response to the passing of FOSTA, other sites hosting third-party content have begun large-scale self-censorship. Craiglist has removed its Personals, Dating and Missed Connections sections from its website, citing concern that unknown mis-use by third parties could put their company in jeopardy.
Some critics are also concerned that the new law opens up companies to liability for hosting questionable content they knew nothing about. In addition, if a company discovers suspicious content and takes steps to remove it, there is concern that the acknowledgement of such content demonstrates knowledge of it–which could also put website hosts on the chopping block.
The passing of FOSTA was received with both praise and consternation. Time will tell what the long-term implications of the new legislation will be.