SWARM is horrified by the Senate passing of SESTA-FOSTA in the US. Already, its effects are being felt and our solidarity is with workers in the US, particularly those in more precarious positions, who will undoubtedly be worst affected.
SWARM has spent the last few days offering internal support to our many panicked members and we are keenly aware of the wide-reaching implications of this legislation. We’ll do our best to bring you more practical information as things become clearer.
WHAT IS SESTA-FOSTA?
Both of these acts amend a current pieces of legislation, the Communications Decency Act. Section 230, which protects online platforms/websites from liability for what their users post.
Although SESTA-FOSTA have been passed in the name of preventing sex trafficking, they are worded to include all prostitution.
FOSTA reads as follows:
“This bill expresses the sense of Congress that section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 was not intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution […]
(Sec. 3) The bill amends the federal criminal code to add a new section that imposes penalties—a fine, a prison term of up to 10 years, or both—on a person who, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempts or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”
In other words, it is now a federal crime to post or host prostitution adverts or anything which could “facilitate” prostitution.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SEX WORKERS?
Websites and platforms are already removing content as their owners could be liable for a 25-year jail sentence.
So far, Backpage has removed its adult content, the Erotic Review (TER) has removed its ad boards, Preferred411.com (P411) is no longer hosting ads for non-US workers, Craigslist has removed its personals section, Google Drive is apparently taking down sex workers’ content and CityVibe has shut down.
SWARM has heard reports of workers having their websites deleted for hosting with US-owned companies and, since most social media platforms are based in the US, sex workers worldwide are having to make significant shifts in their advertising, with many now scrambling to find safe alternatives.
Sex workers are having not only their means of survival shut down but also their means of sharing information and staying safe. Reddit’s removal of sex-work related sub-Reddits is a chilling example of how even discussion of sex work may now be censored in the US.
Sex worker-led groups and anti-trafficking organisations have been calling for reason since the bills were announced. Not only will SESTA-FOSTA be toothless when it comes to fighting sex trafficking, it will create immediate and lasting danger for sex workers who need to keep working to survive.
Since the shutdown of Backpage, which largely inspired this bill, the number of safe spaces to advertise online is dwindling, leaving sex workers to consider higher-risk outdoor work when they may not have had to before. A recent study found a 17 percent decrease in homicides with female victims after Craigslist erotic services was introduced. When sex workers don't have access to digital resources – such as Craigslist, Backpage, Rentboy or MyRedBook – they are more likely to engage in street work.
This bill is a blatant example of the conflation between coerced sex trafficking and consensual sex work. This will not stop sex trafficking, but instead render it more difficult to locate those who may be in danger, whilst placing those who were previously working in safer ways into jeopardy: conditions that will allow trafficking to thrive. From the outset, SETSA-FOSTA has been opposed by many survivors.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
In the US, sex workers have been mobilising to offer support and find solutions as the world of online sex work shrinks around them. Sex worker Liara Roux has written guide to protecting yourself online at TitsandSass. You can get more information (and, if you’re able, send donations to) @redlightlegal, @swopbehindbars and survivorsagainstsesta.org.
Sex workers in the UK should be aware that any website or content built or hosted on US-owned platforms (eg Squarespace or GoDaddy) may be at risk. Likewise, some domain suffixes (such as .com) are under US jurisdiction.
We will do our best to keep you updated on how best to keep working and stay safe.
SETSA-FOTSA was voted in overwhelmingly by US Congress but is has yet to be signed into law. In the meantime, there will be a constitutional challenge argued likely on free speech and due process grounds.
Sex workers are an easy target and, by posing the legislation as part of the “fight against sex trafficking”, congress has made palatable a measure will has vast implications for internet freedom.
In the UK, against the backdrop of the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (aka Snoopers' Charter) and in light of the CLOUD Act, signed into law in the US last week, allowing foreign police and states to collect and wiretap people's communications from US companies, without obtaining a US warrant, SETSA-FOSTA should alarm us all.
"Websites are shutting down users' speech because they fear prosecution and litigation as a result of Congress passing SESTA/FOSTA," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is what internet censorship looks like.
"When platforms over-censor their users, marginalized communities are often silenced disproportionately.”
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