SESTA and FOSTA Could Hide Trafficking from Law Enforcement
In the most illuminating part of last week’s House subcommittee hearing on the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA, H.R. 1865), Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent Russ Winkler explained how he uses online platforms—particularly Backpage—to fight online sex trafficking. Winkler painted a fascinating picture of agents on his team posing as johns, gaining trust with traffickers, and apprehending them. His testimony demonstrated how, with proper training and resources, law enforcement officers can navigate the online platforms where sex work takes place to find and stop traffickers, especially those trafficking children.
It was a rare moment of clarity in the debate over FOSTA and its sibling bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693). Since these bills were introduced, there’s been little discussion of how law enforcement officers use the online platforms that the bills would threaten and how SESTA and FOSTA would make it more difficult for law enforcement to do its work. Winkler made it crystal clear how heavily his work relies on online platforms: “We've conducted operations and investigations involving numerous perpetrators and victims. The one constant we encounter in our investigations is use of online platforms like Backpage.com by buyers and sellers of underage sex.”
There are some differences between SESTA and FOSTA, but their impact on the Internet would be the same. A website or other online platform could be liable under both civil and criminal law, at both the state and federal levels, for the sex trafficking activities of its users. Since it can be very difficult to determine whether a given posting online is in aid of sex trafficking, the bills would almost certainly force websites to become significantly more restrictive in what sorts of content they allow. Many victims of trafficking would likely be pushed off the Internet entirely, as well as sex workers who weren’t being trafficked.
Winkler didn’t show much interest in the idea of targeting online intermediaries—and neither did fellow witness Derri Smith of End Slavery Tennessee. Understandably, their focus isn’t on holding Internet companies liable for user-generated content; it’s on prosecuting the traffickers themselves and getting trafficking victims out of horrific situations.
When Rep. Marsha Blackburn asked both Tennessee panelists what they need to successfully fight trafficking, neither panelist mentioned proposals like SESTA and FOSTA at all. They discussed more important measures aimed at finding and stopping traffickers and supporting survivors. Winkler referenced changes in state law “to make it more punishable for both buyers and sellers of sex acts with juveniles.”
Winkler isn’t the only person who’s tried to explain to Congress how law enforcement relies on online platforms to find and arrest sex traffickers. Numerous experts in trafficking have pointed out that the visibility of online platforms can both aid law enforcement in apprehending traffickers and provide safety to trafficking victims. Trafficking expert Alexandra Levy notes that the online platforms that FOSTA could undermine are the very platforms that law enforcement agencies rely on to fight trafficking:
While more visibility invites more business, it also increases the possibility that victims will be discovered by law enforcement, or anyone else looking for them. By extension, it also makes it more likely that the trafficker himself will be apprehended: exposure to customers necessarily means exposure to law enforcement.
Levy submitted a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, in advance of last week’s hearing, urging the Subcommittee not to go forward with a bill (.pdf) that would make it harder to apprehend traffickers and expose trafficking victims to more danger.
Freedom Network USA—the nation’s largest network of frontline organizations working to reduce trafficking—agrees (.pdf): “Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims.”
Four months after SESTA was introduced in Congress—and with SESTA and FOSTA’s lists of cosponsors growing by the day—lawmakers continue to flock to these bills without questioning whether they provide a real solution to sex trafficking. These bills would do nothing to stop traffickers but would push marginalized voices off of the Internet, including those of trafficking victims themselves.