The following is the first of a pair of posts on SESTA highlighting how carving out an exception to Section 230’s platform protection for sex trafficking rips a huge hole in the critical protection for online speech that Section 230 in its current form provides.
First, if you are someone who likes stepped-up ICE immigration enforcement and does not like “sanctuary cities,” you might cheer the implications of this post, but it isn’t otherwise directed at you. It is directed at the center of the political ven diagram of people who both feel the opposite about these immigration policies, and yet who are also championing SESTA. Because this news from Oakland raises the specter of a horrific implication for online speech championing immigrant rights if SESTA passes: the criminal prosecution of the platforms which host that discussion.
Much of the discussion surrounding SESTA is based on some truly horrific tales of sex abuse, crimes that more obviously fall under what the human trafficking statutes are clearly intended to address. But with news that ICE is engaging in a very broad reading of the type of behavior the human trafficking laws might cover and prosecuting anyone that happens to help an immigrant, it’s clear that the type of speech that SESTA will carve out from Section 230’s protection will go far beyond the situations the bill originally contemplated.
Some immigration rights activists are worried that ICE has recently re-defined the crime of human trafficking to include assistance, like housing and employment, that adults provide to juveniles who come to the United States without their parents. In many cases, the adults being investigated and charged are close relatives of the minors who are supposedly being trafficked.
Is ICE simply misreading the trafficking statutes? Perhaps, but it isn’t necessarily a far-fetched reading. People in the EU who’ve merely given rides to Syrian (and other) refugees tired from trekking on foot have been prosecuted for trafficking. Yes that’s Europe, not the US, but it’s an example of how well-intentioned trafficking laws can easily be over-applied to the point that they invite absurd results, including those that end up making immigrants even more vulnerable to traffickers than they would have been without the laws.
So what does that have to do with SESTA? SESTA is drafted with language that presumes that sex trafficking laws are clearly and unequivocally good in their results. And what that Oakland example suggests is that this belief is a myth. Anti-immigrant forces within the government, both federal and state, can easily twist them against the very same people they were ostensibly designed to protect.
And that means they are free to come after the platforms hosting any and all speech related to the assistance of immigrants, if any and all assistance can be considered trafficking. The scope of what they could target is enormous: tweets warning about plain-clothed ICE agents at courthouses, search engine results for articles indicating whether evacuation centers will be checking immigration status, online ads for DACA enrollment assistance, or even discussion about sanctuary cities and the protections they afford generally. If SESTA passes, platforms will either have to presumptively censor all such online speech, or risk prosecution by any government or state entity with different views on immigration policy. Far from being the minor carve-out of Section 230 that SESTA’s supporters insist it is, it instead is an invitation to drive an awful lot of important speech from the Internet that these same supporters would want to ensure we can continue to have.