March 06, 2018

US House of Representatives passes bill to curb online sex trafficking, may limit free speech online


On February 27, a bipartisan 388 to 25 vote, the House of Representatives approved a legislation called “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)” to curb online sex trafficking by holding website operators more accountable for their users' activities.

The legislation would make it easier for states to prosecute websites that facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking, including trafficking of underage girls. However, according to critics, the legislation could undermine a key legal protection for free speech online.

The Bill amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (which provides website operators with broad immunity for hosting third-party content) by including the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (S.1693). The bill would make it a crime to operate an Internet platform with the intent of promoting prostitution. However, digital rights groups argue that Section 230 made today's innovative and free-wheeling Internet possible because sites don't have to worry about getting sued if their users post content that violates the law.

According to the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, "FOSTA would punch a major hole in Section 230, enabling lawsuits and prosecutions against online platforms—including ones that aren’t even aware that sex trafficking is taking place." The Foundation further added, "Facing the threat of extreme criminal and civil penalties, web platforms large and small would have little choice but to silence legitimate voices. Platforms would have to take extreme measures to remove a wide range of postings, especially those related to sex."

A major concern here is that websites could become less active about moderating their sites because doing so could make them more aware of—and therefore more liable for—objectionable material.

The bill would give sex-trafficking victims more power to sue websites that knowingly support sex trafficking. Supporters say that the legislation will help curb the growing epidemic of online sex trafficking that often involves children, while opponents argue it could expose tech companies to costly lawsuits and infringe on free speech.

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