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The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act: friend or foe?

July 31, 2018
topic:Digital Rights
tags:#Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), #Donald Trump, #human rights
partner:Screen Shot
by:Sofia Gallarate
In the never ending debate that surrounds freedom of speech and agency on the internet, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), recently voted in 97–2 by the American Senate, stands as a significant example of the controversy that concerns the legal boundaries limiting web platforms and individual freedom on the internet.

The act, which will most likely be signed by Donald Trump next week, will, in fact, put an end to years of ongoing battles between giant web platforms such as Craigslist and Backpage and sex trafficking activists who rightly claim that the websites’ personal ads section is facilitating and promoting sex trafficking. The new anti-trafficking bill has been drawn out to hold websites accountable for the content advertised on their platforms by third parties, thus putting companies at high risk of legal persecution by keeping their personal ads section without reform; with lax regulation over content, such ad spaces thrive when it comes to promoting sex services online. As websites will now be held liable for illicit services advertised on their platform—a prior attempt to increase the monitoring of the content was unsuccessful—it seems as though the only solution available for web companies to protect their businesses is to close the personal ads section entirely.

Following the public announcement of the act, and with great remorse and criticism, web tycoons such as Reddit and Craigslist have already taken action by shutting down their personal ads sections, arguing that keeping them active would jeopardise the entire site. Among the numerous critics, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been a strong opponent to the introduction of the act, is mourning the pass of the bill: “Today is a dark day for the Internet,” they tweeted, arguing that the act will silence online speech while forcing internet platforms to censor their users. Consensual sex workers too have expressed scepticism towards SESTA as it could harm their business and safety: the absence of digital resources would, in turn, push online sex workers towards street work, which has been statistically proven more dangerous.

SESTA is without a doubt a controversial act; it brings justice to some and great harm to others at the same time. Fighting against mass sexual exploitation of women and children on the internet should, and must, be a priority for legislators and web platforms. The outcry towards the bill’s potential incapability of diminishing online sex trafficking resonates with much rigour. Because while it may be (slightly) more difficult to access these services after the act’s implementation, the huge demand for sex workers online will no doubt continue, only now it will be forced to find new hubs for its existence, namely far more unregulated websites, dark web sites, or ultimately, the streets. SESTA opens up the door for a sensitive dilemma: at what cost are we willing to protect the internet’s freedom?

Article written by:
Sofia Gallarate
Content partners:
Screen Shot
Content partner
Embed from Getty Images
The new anti-trafficking bill has been drawn out to hold websites accountable for the content advertised on their platforms by third parties.
Embed from Getty Images
Consensual sex workers too have expressed skepticism towards SESTA as it could harm their business and safety.
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