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Need to Know: Trump Signs Controversial FOSTA Bill, Raising Outcry From Sex Workers

The new legislation was billed as protection against online sex trafficking, but it’s already disrupted the livelihoods of consensual sex workers around the world.

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Photo via iStock/ piranka

After months of vocal opposition from sex workers, adult film performers, and free speech advocates, President Donald Trump signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) Wednesday. Touted as protection against sex trafficking on the internet, the new law has already caused the closure of websites that consensual sex workers say are necessary to their safety.

Often referred to as “FOSTA-SESTA” because of concurrent online sex trafficking proposals in both chambers of Congress, Trump signed the FOSTA bil this week after the legislation was passed by overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.

Harping on what lawmakers claim is the “unlawful promotion and facilitation of prostitution,” FOSTA amends Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 to hold specific websites accountable for user-published content. As a direct response to FOSTA’s success in the federal legislature, a number of websites — including Backpage.com and Craigslist’s personals section — have already shut down entirely.

But while lawmakers, the Christian right, and a handful of high-profile celebrities have celebrated the passage of FOSTA as a victory in the fight against sex slavery and trafficking, thousands of voluntary sex workers say that the legislation has effectively stamped out their livelihoods by removing the safety protections and communities that consensual sex workers have established online.

“This bill claims to target human trafficking, but does so by creating new penalties for online platforms that are overwhelmingly used by consensual, adult sex workers to screen clients, to share “bad date lists,” to work indoors, and to otherwise communicate with each other about ways to stay alive,” adult film performer Lorelei Lee wrote on Instagram after the bill was approved by the Senate last month.

Because online forums and cheap advertising sites have been available with low barriers to entry, sex workers have been able to communicate about potentially dangerous clients, proper pricing, and procedural etiquette, as well as create new business opportunities from the privacy and safety of their homes. With FOSTA legislation now passed, the websites that have previously provided those services could now be charged with promoting prostitution or sex trafficking.

In addition to opposition from sex workers and their supporters, FOSTA saw significant opposition from a number of internet freedom advocacy groups. Because the legislation amends Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, groups like the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) have worried that the broad bill could set a dangerous precedent about who is responsible for user-generated content posted to social websites.

“If websites can be sued or prosecuted because of user actions, it creates extreme incentives,” the EFF wrote in a late February op-ed anticipating the bill’s passage. “Some online services might react by prescreening or filtering user posts. Others might get sued out of existence. New companies, fearing FOSTA liabilities, may not start up in the first place.”

Thanks to Trump’s presidential signature, FOSTA is now law, but it is still not clear if or when the federal government will actually begin targeting websites that host the now-banned content.