Online crackdown of sex trafficking ads chills untargeted speech

Sex ads sites are shutting down en masse after Congress this week passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which makes website liable for hosting content that could advertise trafficking.

There's a limit to free speech and this is but the latest example.

In passing the legislation, Congress aid the Communications Act of 1934 "was not 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."

Craigslist is the latest to get the message, announcing it will no longer provide ads that could involve prostitution.

US Congress just passed HR 1865, "FOSTA", seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully.

Any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.

To the millions of spouses, partners, and couples who met through craigslist, we wish you every happiness!

Earlier this year, Backpage, another website that provided sex ads, shut down its adult ad section, a move that opponents of sex trafficking declared a major victory.

The New York Times reported last week, however, that the closing of the online ad section only sent more prostitutes back to the street, most often at the criminal insistence of their pimps.

The people in the business, however, have a problem with the online crackdown. Early on Thursday, Reddit shut down subreddits that included sex worker forums -- Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy -- just hours after the Senate approved the bill. says none of them were advertising forums but online sites are scared of what Congress has unleashed and are pre-emptively shutting down forums that could be swept up in the crackdown.

Reason says even sites that just talk about the sex industry are in peril even if they weren't included in the legislation.

Yet they run close enough up against exchanges that could be illegal that it's hard for a third-party like Reddit to differentiate. And the same goes for forums where sex workers post educational content, news, safety and legal advice. Without broad Section 230 protections, Reddit could be in serious financial and legal trouble if they make the wrong call.

Some have suggested that the new content policy, not FOSTA, is to blame for the shutdown of the sex-related subreddits. But FOSTA may also help explain Reddit's new content policy overall. (Reddit did not respond to my request for comment Thursday morning.)

FOSTA seriously chips away at Section 230, the federal provision that protects web publishers from being treated as the speaker of user-generated content. Proponents of FOSTA have insisted this is just a renovation of Section 230, not a demolition. But as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—who coauthored the Section 230 language in the '90s—noted yesterday, once you carve out a loophole for one bad thing (in this case, the change is allegedly meant to stop sex trafficking), it's easy for legislators and courts to carve out loopholes and justifications for everything.

After all, murder is pretty bad. And everyone's pretty jazzed up about the "opioid epidemic" right now. Guns, too. Do you think Congress can resist asking if websites that facilitate these crimes shouldn't be just as liable as those that broker sex?

Though the issue is unlikely to stir mainstream America, the situation nonetheless illustrates what happens when any particular content becomes regulated. Other content gets "regulated" too, with untargeted speech getting suppressed out of fear.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)