Advent is a season for reflection and repentance, and last week Democrats issued a political mea culpa by acknowledging that a new law eliminating liability protections for online platforms that unknowingly host sex trafficking may be harming its intended beneficiaries.
“As lawmakers, we are responsible for examining unintended consequences of all legislation, and that includes any impact SESTA-FOSTA may have had on the ability of sex workers to protect themselves from physical or financial abuse,”
(D., Mass.) said Tuesday.
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act shields online platforms from liability for user posts, but Congress last year carved out an exception for sex trafficking. Lawmakers flogged the now defunct website Backpage, which a Senate report found had essentially become a marketplace for child-sex traffickers.
But nothing in Section 230 stops the Justice Department from investigating or prosecuting the kind of criminal conduct discovered on Backpage. The law merely shields online platforms from being sued for illegal user-generated content. It was intended in part to allow platforms to remove illicit content without worrying that doing so would expose them to liability as publishers.
Yet Members of Congress wanted to show that they were cracking down on sex trafficking and tech companies. We argued at the time that the legislation might instead encourage platforms to broadly censor content including advertisements seeking to help sex-trafficking victims. Now Democrats complain that’s what’s happening.
Sex workers say they have been forced off-line where they can’t screen or negotiate with clients while sex trafficking has moved deeper into the dark web. “This is a cautionary tale that we have to be very deliberate, thoughtful, inclusive in how we regulate the internet,” said
California Rep. Ro Khanna,
a leading critic of Big Tech.
We don’t support decriminalizing prostitution, but neither do we believe that making online platforms liable for their users will solve social problems or stop criminal activity. It’s more likely to make it harder for law enforcement to identify criminals by using platforms like
More than a dozen Democrats including Mr. Khanna, Ms. Warren and
have introduced legislation instructing the Department of Health and Human Services to study the law’s effects, which they say could provide a basis for repeal. Perhaps next time they’ll consider the consequences before passing a law.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8