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Congress Approves Bill Which Could Censor the Internet

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The US Senate has passed a bill that actually weakens legal protections given to websites that host third-party content.  The measure is supposed to stop the promotion of prostitution and sex trafficking on the internet, but the legislation itself won’t actually help victims of sex trafficking.  Further, it’s thought that this legislation will erode online free speech.  The Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in a 97-2 vote. The two Senators who didn’t vote in favor of this bill were Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).  But it’s already been passed, and it’s expected to be signed by Donald Trump shortly.

So why pass this bill in the first place?  The bill changes Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides website operators with broad immunity for hosting third-party content.  The bill declares that Section 230 “was never intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex-trafficking victims”.  Which means – anyone who “promotes or facilitates” the prostitution of another person will no longer have legal protections under Section 230.

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YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

This is a good thing and violators could face fines or prison sentences of up to 25 years.  This bill came about due to the website backpage.com, even though the site has been shut down, it’s promoted this kind of behavior.  But there’s a problem with this bill.  There’s always a problem.  Elliott Harmon, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist believes that this is actually going to censor free speech on the internet.  According to Harmon, the bill is worded broadly enough that “it could even be used against platform owners that don’t know that their sites are being used for trafficking”.  Huh?  How is that even happening?

Harmon also states:

It’s easy to see the impact that this ramp-up in liability will have on online speech: facing the risk of ruinous litigation, online platforms will have little choice but to become much more restrictive in what sorts of discussion—and what sorts of users—they allow, censoring innocent people in the process.

What forms that erasure takes will vary from platform to platform. For some, it will mean increasingly restrictive terms of service—banning sexual content, for example, or advertisements for legal escort services. For others, it will mean over-reliance on automated filters to delete borderline posts. No matter what methods platforms use to mitigate their risk, one thing is certain: when platforms choose to err on the side of censorship, marginalized voices are censored disproportionately. The Internet will become a less-inclusive place, something that hurts all of us.

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Regardless of the speech implications, those in the sex trade are in opposition to this bill because websites can help sex workers screen clients in order to avoid dangerous situations.  Becuase the bill is pretty explicit, a sex worker now can’t have a website at all because that’s promoting prostitution.  In many cases, these sites protect people from getting hurt.  Meanwhile, legislators who are in favor of the bill are defending it saying that it is going to push back against the growth of illegal sex trafficking on the internet.  But I think that remains to be seen. In fact, I am in agreement with the opposition.  This isn’t going to be good for the internet.

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