Senate Bill That Aims to Fight Sex Trafficking Might Limit Internet Freedoms

Could a bill aimed to stop sex trafficking lead to internet censorship?

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, was drafted to stop human trafficking, especially when it comes to children. But the bill has been met with a bit of controversy, primarily from tech and internet experts, who claim it could erode core internet freedoms.

How does this work exactly? FOSTA is a hybrid bill, which includes key provisions of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, better known as SESTA. The combination amends section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which went into effect in 1996 and protects internet companies from being liable for the content its users post online. This means, for example, that only you can be responsible if you post a defamatory Facebook status, not Facebook.

Most past cases of child sex trafficking involved ads on a website called Backpage, which is particularly unsettling, considering there was evidence that the website knew about the activity on its site. However, because of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), Backpage was exempt from liability.

The Senate bill would make the federal sex trafficking law exempt from parts of CDA which means the website would be held liable for some of the content on it — especially if it entailed sex trafficking. The bill has strong bipartisan support, so we’ll likely get to see if it gets passed into law fairly soon — despite the implications for websites.