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‘Good Intentions,” Bad Results: The International Impact of USA’s Anti-Trafficking Efforts

South Korean sex workers protest police harassment.

It was over a month ago when we first noted that South Korean sex workers are becoming increasingly desperate to defend their right to work. Today, they are still stocking their places of work with gasoline and signs warning the police that they’re prepared to light their buildings and themselves on fire if they continue to experience harassment. All of  this is the result of a particularly vicious police crackdown.

Meanwhile, the recently released US Trafficking in Persons Report accuses South Korea of being lax on trafficking. According to the US, South Korea needs more laws and more enforcement because right now there is a dearth of “stern punishments.” South Korean officials find this confusing because they’ve been relentlessly exterminating brothels since 2004 and, clearly, they’re still hard at it.

Bookmark all that for a minute. I want to show you something else. 

SESTA’s Growing Threat To The Sex Worker Internet

Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.

Learn Human Trafficking From Home

via flickr user STML
(via Flickr user STML)

Have you ever wondered what’s taught in university social work classes about sex trafficking? Several sex worker activists recently decided to go forth and find out by taking the online Human Trafficking course offered by Ohio State University’s Social Work program through Coursera, an education platform that partners with universities to offer online classes.

Course grades were based entirely on starting and responding to discussion forum topics and the students’ creation of human trafficking public service announcements. Although Coursera claimed that the class had 30,000 participants, in the end only 97 completed the class and received a certificate. Those who completed the class have not received the certificates yet. As activist Bella Robinson, put it, “God knows what it will say.”

The forum discussion, according to one sex worker student who posted on Facebook, was “about 99.99% about forcing women to stop doing sex work.” There was little or no moderation, with students up or down voting each other’s posts similarly to the way Reddit users do. The instructor, Dr. Jacquelyn Meshelemiah, an associate professor at Ohio State’s College of Social Work, rarely interacted with students and never corrected misinformation or addressed abusive comments.

The Worst New Year’s Resolution

Protestors with pink umbrellas and sign reading "Jim Larkin CEO = PIMP" outside Backpage offices
Photo: Melissa Gira Grant

On Dec. 20 the Senate passed Senate Resolution 439: “A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC should eliminate the ‘adult entertainment’ section of the classified advertising website Backpage.com.”

I am clearly weeks late responding to this. This happened in the flurry of holidays, travel, and the Sandy Hook shooting media storm. It was also on the heels of December 17 so most of the sex work activist community was burned out and exhausted. Though not necessarily intentional, the highly unfortunate timeline of events is important to note.

In immediate practical terms, this doesn’t mean much. A simple resolution only expresses nonbinding positions of the Senate. No one is required to do anything is response. But the implications are disturbing.

The growing campaign against Backpage is a continuation of the same work that successfully shut down the Adult Services section of Craigslist. The same bad logic, false dataflawed principlesineffective solutions and racist bullshit apply.

The Village Voice, which up until recently was part of the same subsidiary group as Backpage, declared in 2011 that “the Craigslist beat-down was absurdist theater.” Remember the debacle when Ashton Kutcher declared himself a spokesman for the anti-trafficking movement? If you don’t – here are some reminders. It was a perfect illustration of the absurdist theater that the Voice pinpointed.

But they have responded very differently to the campaign to shut down Backpage.

The State Is A Trafficker: Why Alaska Arrested Amber Batts

Anchorage, Alaska (via Flickr user paxson_woelber)
Anchorage, Alaska. (image via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.”  The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it.  In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did.  Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.”  They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.

“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”

Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs.  Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim.  In the incident report, she is listed as a victim.  She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation.