The following post first appeared on Techdirt on 10/25/17.
The last two posts I wrote about SESTA discussed how, if it passes, it will result in collateral damage to the important speech interests Section 230 is intended to protect. This post discusses how it will also result in collateral damage to the important interests that SESTA itself is intended to protect: those of vulnerable sex workers.
Concerns about how SESTA would affect them are not new: several anti-trafficking advocacy groups and experts have already spoken out about how SESTA, far from ameliorating the risk of sexual exploitation, will only exacerbate the risk of it in no small part because it disables one of the best tools for fighting it: the Internet platforms themselves:
[Using the vilified Backpage as an example, in as much as] Backpage acts as a channel for traffickers, it also acts as a point of connection between victims and law enforcement, family, good samaritans, and NGOs. Countless news reports and court documents bear out this connection. A quick perusal of news stories shows that last month, a mother found and recovered her daughter thanks to information in an ad on Backpage; a brother found his sister the same way; and a family alerted police to a missing girl on Backpage, leading to her recovery. As I have written elsewhere, NGOs routinely comb the website to find victims. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times famously “pulled out [his] laptop, opened up Backpage and quickly found seminude advertisements for [a victim], who turned out to be in a hotel room with an armed pimp,” all from the victim’s family’s living room. He emailed the link to law enforcement, which staged a raid and recovered the victim.
And now there is yet more data confirming what these experts have been saying: when there have been platforms available to host content for erotic services, it has decreased the risk of harm to sex workers.
The September 2017 study, authored by West Virginia University and Baylor University economics and information systems experts, analyzes rates of female homicides in various cities before and after Craigslist opened an erotic services section on its website. The authors found a shocking 17 percent decrease in homicides with female victims after Craigslist erotic services were introduced.
The reasons for these numbers aren’t entirely clear, but there does seem to be a direct correlation in the safety to sex workers when, thanks to the availability of online platforms, they can “move indoors.”
Once sex workers move indoors, they are much safer for a number of reasons, Cunningham said. When you’re indoors, “you can screen your clients more efficiently. When you’re soliciting a client on the street, there is no real screening opportunity. The sex worker just has to make the split second decision. She relies on very limited and complete information about the client’s identity and purposes. Whereas when a sex worker solicits indoors through digital means, she has Google, she has a lot of correspondence, she can ask a lot of questions. It’s not perfect screening, but it’s better.”
The push for SESTA seems to be predicated on the unrealistic notion that all we need to do to end sex trafficking is end the ability of sex services to use online platforms. But evidence suggests that removing the “indoor” option that the Internet affords doesn’t actually end sex work; it simply moves it to the outdoors, where it is vastly less safe.
In 2014, Monroe was a trafficking victim in California. She found her clients by advertising on SFRedbook, the free online erotic services website. One day, she logged into the site and discovered that federal authorities had taken it down. Law enforcement hoped that closing the site would reduce trafficking, but it didn’t help Monroe. When she told her pimp SFRedbook was gone, he shrugged. Then he told her that she would just have to work outdoors from then on.
“When they closed down Redbook, they pushed me to the street,” Monroe told ThinkProgress. “We had a set limit we had to make a day, which was more people, cheaper dates, and if you didn’t bring that home, it was ugly.” Monroe, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, had been working through Redbook in hotel rooms almost without incident, but working outdoors was much less safe.
“I got raped and robbed a couple of times,” she said. “You’re in people’s cars, which means nobody can hear you if you get robbed or beaten up.”
A recurrent theme here on Techdirt is that, as with any technology policy, no matter how well-intentioned it is, whether or not it is a good policy depends on its unintended consequences. Not only do we need to worry about how a policy affects other worthwhile interests, but it also needs to consider how it affects the interest it seeks to vindicate. And in this case SESTA stands to harm the very people it ostensibly seeks to help.
Does that mean Congress should do nothing to address sex trafficking? Of course not, and it is considering many more options that more directly address the serious harms that arise from sex trafficking. Even Section 230 as it currently exists does not prevent the government from going after platforms if they directly aid it. But all too often regulators like to take shortcuts and target platforms simply because bad people may be using them in bad ways. It’s a temptation that needs to be resisted for many reasons, but not the least of which is that doing so may enable bad people to behave even worse.