Amidst all the insanity going on in Washington these days, here’s something you may have missed. Last week, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill called FOSTA/SESTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. In basic terms, it makes it a criminal offense for any website to host any content related to sex work. The bill was intended to prevent online sex trafficking, but as any sex worker will tell you, the move will simply push legal sex work underground. Moreover, sex workers and trafficking victims alike will be forced into more dangerous circumstances. As one sex worker friend of mine put it: “People will die.”
Forced with the prospect of criminal liability, some sites have already started removing large swaths of content that could potentially host sex work-related content. The first casualty of this bill is the Craigslist personals section — including the infamous “Missed Connections” category — replaced by a message explaining FOSTA’s role in the shutdown and wishing “every happiness” to the “millions of spouses, couples, and partners” who met through the service.
Other sites are reacting to the new legislation as well. Reddit has banned its “Escorts” and “Sugar Daddy” sections in response to FOSTA. The website VerifyHIM has shut down its community section, a valuable resource where escorts would identify and warn other sex workers about violent or troublesome clients. And finally, sex workers are reporting that Google has started enforcing a years-old policy by deleting adult content without warning from the cloud storage service Google Drive, including legal copyrighted material rightfully owned by account-holders.
Advocacy groups like the Free Speech Coalition have pledged to take action, but as President Trump is poised to sign the bill into law, the full effects of the legislation are yet to be seen. More broadly, the question should be asked: “Is this censorship?” When providers are forced to take entire sections of websites offline in order to protect themselves — a move that results in the restriction of legal speech — it sure seems that way.