Over a year ago, Congress passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (“FOSTA”) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (“SESTA”) in a confused attempt at combatting sex trafficking, but instead endangered sex workers and censored private companies that were worried about newly-imposed civil and criminal liability. Now, states are getting in on the action by passing their own versions of the misguided law. These new laws will be used to come after platform operators for user-submitted content, to subject those platforms to the whims of state-level officials who are more often influenced by politics than the Department of Justice, and to put more pressure on those platforms to censor erotic media.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a state version of FOSTAA hidden amongst four other bills related to reducing the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in the state, criminalizing “stash houses” that facilitate human trafficking, and increasing resources available to sexual assault survivors. These bills will take effect on September 1, 2019.
“I’m here to sign legislation that keeps Texas a national leader in cracking down on human trafficking, making Texas a hostile place for human traffickers, and providing protection to the victims of this heinous crime,” Gov. Abbott claimed. “It doesn’t matter what your politics are. It just matters what your commitment is. We are proud to make Texas synonymous with the word justice.”
Despite the Governor’s pronouncements, the Texas FOSTA law will not be effective at reducing sex trafficking or protecting victims. Instead, it will have the opposite effect. Like FOSTA, which caused huge amounts of erotic content to be removed from the internet, the law will encourage continued censorship of protected online expression. In addition, it will eliminate the crucial digital evidence often provided to law enforcement by online advertising networks used by traffickers. More of these platforms will shut down or move overseas – outside the reach of U.S. investigators. But worse still, the law will create increased danger for sex workers who will no longer have access to digital screening and security protections such as “bad date” lists and safety tips. The human cost imposed by FOSTA was recently detailed in an article published in Fordham Law Review, which concludes that the law “confines commercial sex to its most dangerous model.” This is particularly devastating for the estimated 79,000 young sex trafficking victims in Texas, many of whom are Latino or African American, according to estimates provided by the state’s Attorney General’s Office and a recent study by the University of Texas. Women of color are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted for sex work and forcing the activity back to the street will naturally increase the victimization.
Like the federal FOSTA/SESTA bills, the Texas version titled Senate Bill 20 creates criminal and civil liability by stripping online platforms and content providers of an over 20-year-old protection that effectively fostered innovation and guarded freedom of expression on the internet. Now, in addition to federal criminal and civil liability levied by FOSTA, online platforms and content providers will be exposed to potentially debilitating criminal and civil liability for prostitution and sex trafficking claims at the state level in Texas, unless they take onerous measures to find and remove users involved in this criminal activity. While such measures are hard to successfully implement for even the largest sites, startups and smaller platforms will have a particularly tough time complying with Senate Bill 20, as fledgling businesses do not have the financial resources necessary to employ costly artificial intelligence tools and/or a large team of moderators trained to hunt down anything vaguely resembling sex trafficking or prostitution on their platforms.
Importantly, Texas Senate Bill 20 targets not only illegal sex trafficking, but consensual sex work as well. Now, online platforms and content providers can be sued or prosecuted in state court in Texas, if their services were used by third parties to promote or facilitate prostitution. Consensual sex workers will be pushed away from the protections the internet provides and toward potentially violent and dangerous people on the streets. They face increased risk in customer interactions, now that their harm reduction tools have been removed from the internet in reaction to FOSTA. Such risks are now more prevalent. For example, there was a 170% spike in sex trafficking incidents reported in San Francisco as a result of FOSTA. Additionally, such risks are often more serious, and may include death. In fact, before FOSTA, Craigslist’s erotic services section helped reduce the female homicide rate by 17%, according to a recent study. More FOSTA-like prohibitions at the state level will exacerbate the damage already done by the federal law.
Similar to FOSTA, Article 3 of Senate Bill 20 regulates the “Online Promotion of Prostitution” by making it a criminal offense to own, manage, or operate an interactive computer service or information content provider with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution. Also, like FOSTA, the law broadly-defines these terms, but also adds new categories of targeted online intermediaries. An “interactive computer service” is any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables access to a computer server by multiple users, including a service or system that provides access to the Internet or a system operated or service offered by a library or educational institution. An “access software provider” is any provider of software or enabling tools that (1) filter, screen, allow, or disallow content, (2) select, analyze, or digest content, or (3) transmit, receive, display, forward, cache, search, subset, organize, reorganize, or translate content. An “information content provider” is any person or entity that is responsible for creating or developing information provided through the internet or any other interactive computer service. Essentially, just about any online service or content provider may be charged if its users promote or facilitate prostitution.
Article 3 of Senate Bill 20 creates new trafficking offenses such that a conviction may be obtained when a person knowingly:
- Traffics another person with the intent that the trafficked person engage in forced labor or services;
- Traffics another person and – through force, fraud, or coercion – causes the person to engage in prostitution, promotion of prostitution, or compelling prostitution;
- Traffics a child with the intent that the trafficked child engage in forced labor or services;
- Traffics a child and causes the child to engage in continuous sexual abuse, indecency, sexual assault, prostitution, promotion of prostitution, compelling prostitution, sexual performance, harmful employment, or possession or promotion of child pornography; or
- Receives a benefit from participating in a venture that involves any of the above.
Article 3 of Senate Bill 20 also creates civil liability for damages arising from compelled prostitution when a defendant (1) compels prostitution of the victim, (2) knowingly or intentionally engages in promotion of prostitution, on or off line, that results in compelled prostitution of the victim, or (3) purchases an advertisement that the defendant knows or reasonably should know constitutes promotion of prostitution, and which results in compelled prostitution of the victim.
Other portions of the law will require the state to collect data on trafficking cases, implement a “media awareness campaign,” and develop recommendations to decrease demand. Significantly, the law also requires an examination of the presumed connections between trafficking and sexually-oriented businesses.
States like Texas have been anxious to pass laws like this; holding online intermediaries responsible for illegal activities of their users. However, until the passage of FOSTA, they faced an insurmountable hurdle in the form of Section 230 to the Communications Decency Act. FOSTA removed that hurdle, and effectively invited states to adopt legislation like the Texas bill. Now, the states need not wait for the Department of Justice to pursue websites that are believed to promote or facilitate consensual sex work. The floodgates of liability have been opened in Texas, and there is no longer any gatekeeper. Any state prosecutor looking to leverage the sex trafficking panic can use a law like the one passed by Texas to target online platforms. This will predictably result in a chilling effect on speech and continued censorship of erotic media, as platforms react by exterminating any content that may be considered risky.
While Texas may be the first state to enact its own version of FOSTA, it is unlikely that it will be the last to do so. Publishers and consumers of adult-oriented media will pay a price as online access becomes more burdensome. The real price will be paid by sex workers who will face increased hostility and violence now that their harm reduction tools have been criminalized. Other states considering these “mini-FOSTA” laws are encouraged to look carefully at the devastation caused by the federal version before making the same mistake.
This post was co-authored by Lawrence G. Walters, Esq., and Bobby Desmond, Esq., of Walters Law Group. Nothing in this post is intended as legal advice.