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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.

Big Mother Is Watching You: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)
Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Official photo from Department of State page)

For our second installment of Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, we’d like to remind you of a few salient facts about Hillary Clinton and her relationship to Somaly Mam, after the formal launch of Clinton’s second presidential bid on Sunday. 

While U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013), Hillary Clinton was responsible for the continuation, from the Bush Administration, of trafficking-related foreign policy harmful to sex workers in the Global South. Under her tenure, the U.S. Department of State continued enforcing the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath, a policy that led to the defunding of a number of very effective anti-HIV/AIDS organizations operating in the Global South who were were unwilling to condemn the sex workers receiving their services. The U.S. government defended that policy to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 6-2 against them in 2013 on free speech grounds (Justice Elena Kagan recused). Unfortunately, that ruling only applies to organizations based in the United States, though it was recently reinterpreted to also apply to organizations based in the U.S. but working in affiliates or offices abroad.

During Clinton’s administration, the Trafficking In Persons Office, a division of the U.S. Department of State, also continued to reward Cambodia with an improved TIP Report ranking for its 2008 criminalization of prostitution, a Bush administration move that led to the imprisonment of sex workers in Orwellian “rehabilitation centers” and other horrors, including beatings, extortion, and rape.

Casualties of War: The Wars on Drugs and Trafficking

(Screenshot from CNN video.)
Racism, much? (Screenshot from CNN video.)

After several years of working in nonprofit agencies that take a harm reduction approach to working with drug users and sex workers, I’ve observed many similarities between the war on drugs and the war on trafficking. As the drug war has lost popularity, the war on trafficking has gained momentum. Both the war on drugs and the war on trafficking are housed within the criminal justice system, operating through punishment and incarceration. Both wars seek to eliminate their abstract opponents by attacking communities of drug users and sex workers, composed mainly of poor people of color.

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. 

What the hell is going on with Backpage?

Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)
Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)

This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States. American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year. This leaves Bitcoin and prepaid Vanilla Visa gift cards as the only ways to pay for advertising on the site.

Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.