Hey, what happened to the personals on Craigslist? And to Reddit’s SugarDaddy community? And to the furry dating site Pounced.org? All across the Internet, forums dedicated to sex and relationships just suddenly went dark. The culprit is Congress and a terrible bill called FOSTA (the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act”), which will do more than just shutter a few websites. It could also lead to increased violence against sex workers, with LGBTQ people disproportionately prone to attacks.
First, a little background on what FOSTA is: It’s a major shift in law that severely criminalizes any online act that assists sex workers in their work. A website operator could go to jail for up to 10 years if any user of the site promotes or facilitates prostitution — even if that website operator had no idea what was going on, and even if it happened before the bill was passed.
Proponents of the bill say it will help prevent human trafficking, but that’s just not true. The bill attacks all sex workers, not just traffickers. It’s like passing a bill that criminalizes drug dealing, but wording it so broadly that pharmacists can be sent to prison for doing their job as well.
In fact, FOSTA will put sex workers in harm’s way. In the past, sex workers have used the internet to provide safety training, to pass around advice for avoiding violent clients and to reach out for help when experiencing abuse.
But FOSTA makes it illegal for a website to allow those conversations to occur. That’s why many sites have pre-emptively removed forums where people might share safety advice that could save the lives of sex workers. Better to prevent a potentially infringing conversation than to take on the risk of allowing it.
This will also make it harder to catch dangerous sex trafficking when it happens. Previously, human trafficking could sometimes be caught through online trails. But this bill forces traffickers to find more obscure ways of doing business, which could include moving to websites operated out of countries with even fewer protections for victims. Ultimately FOSTA will make it more difficult to find and help victims.
This is of particular concern to the LGBTQ community, since queer people are disproportionately likely to engage in survival sex work, and disproportionately affected by violent crime. As is often the case, women and minorities are likely to bear the worst consequences of the law.
And this isn’t likely to be the end of crackdowns on online behavior. Starting in May, Microsoft will update its terms of service so it can monitor your use of its services and ban you for using strong language — so, for example, Microsoft might investigate your conversations and ban you for simply typing something about sex. Or it might close your Xbox account if they hear you swear. Coming as close as it is to the vote on FOSTA, there’s been widespread speculation that this is a pre-emptive move to avoid running afoul of the law.
FOSTA isn’t law yet, as it’s just passed the Senate. But Donald Trump is expected to sign it, which means the internet is about to become a more dangerous place for queer people, sex workers and anyone who just wants to post a personal ad.