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FOSTA:  The Law and how it affects us all



President Trump signed into law on April, 11th 2018 the bill, nicknamed “FOSTA” for its title, “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. This new law gives States and the US government greater power to prosecute websites that host sex-trafficking ads. Victims and state attorneys general can now file lawsuits against these sites. On April 3, 2018, the US government arrested executives from Backpage.com on a 93-count indictment that alleges that the website facilitated prostitution and laundered tens of millions of dollars in profit, and for years teenage girls including minors were advertised and sold for sex on the Backpage site. Some of the girls were forced into prostitution and killed by the men they met from the Backpage ad.

The FBI took action against Backpage's executives and shut down Backpage’s classified ad websites around the world and moved to seize houses and bank accounts around the United States days before the bill became law, which led some to question why FOSTA was needed if such action was able to be taken without it.

“FOSTA gives prosecutors the tools they need,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R- Mo.), chief sponsor of the bill, “to ensure that no online business can ever approach the size of Backpage again.” Civil liberties activists criticized the bill as too broad, creating a new disadvantage for websites that had previously been protected by the Communications Decency Act for content posted by third parties. Several sites, such as Craigslist, began shutting down sections that might be seen as sex-related after the bill passed the Senate last month, and Rep. Wagner said online sex-related advertising revenue had declined 87 percent in the past 60 days even before the president signed the law.

Supporters for sex workers say that by shutting down adult content ad sites, FOSTA deprives sex workers of a safe place to screen customers, as well as removing a tool for law enforcement to track pimps, locate missing children and build criminal cases.

“Shutting down every service provider and website will not end sex trafficking,” said Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a coalition of anti-trafficking advocates. “What it will do is push traffickers to overseas websites that are beyond the reach of law enforcement, making it harder to prosecute them and harder to find them through the victims.”

Horror stories from websites such as Backpage, in which young girls were trafficked for months or even years, created a wave of frustration that the websites couldn’t be forced to stop hosting the ads and that the victims couldn’t sue the sites for damages. The federal indictment of Backpage officials described one girl who was prostituted on Backpage from ages 14 to 19, saying she was gang-raped, choked to the point of seizures and forced to perform sex acts at gunpoint. 

Internal emails captured by the FBI demonstrated that Backpage officials edited ads, or advised customers how to write their ads so that words indicating that a person was a “teen” or “young” or “fresh” were substituted, yet the ad itself would remain online and the victim still prostituted. 

The report issued by the Senate committee in January 2017 boiled with anger, declaring that “Backpage knows that it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking” and that “Backpage’s public defense is a fiction.” An investigation by The Washington Post found that Backpage was not only deeply involved in creating ad content but also soliciting prostitutes from other websites to advertise on Backpage. The FBI later obtained documents, and prosecutors cited them in the new indictment as evidence that “Backpage often affirmatively creates the content of the illegal prostitution ads being published.” 

So in April 2017, Rep Ann Wagner (R- Mo.) introduced FOSTA in the House, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who had overseen the Senate investigation of Backpage, introduced SESTA — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — last August. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the original authors of the Communications Decency Act, was one of the two “no” votes, saying it was a mistake to change the law and would have unforeseen consequences for the Internet. 

FOSTA amends parts of four federal laws, beginning with clarifying that the Communications Decency Act “was never intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution.” It adds a clause to the decency act that makes clear it does not affect civil suits or state criminal cases related to federal sex-trafficking crimes. 

FOSTA amends the “Mann Act,” prohibiting interstate prostitution, by adding a new section prohibiting using a website to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” 

FOSTA also amends the law on sex trafficking of children to clarify “participating in a venture” as “knowingly assisting, supporting or facilitating a violation” of the law. 

And FOSTA creates the ability for state attorneys general to bring civil suits against violators of federal prostitution laws. 

Critics still feel the new law creates too much opportunity for lawsuits against websites for content they didn’t post and didn’t know about. Lola, a community organizer with Survivors Against SESTA, commented that this is literally a life-or-death law for sex workers. “I know so many people who were able to start working indoors or leave their exploitative situations because of Backpage and Craigslist,” she said. “They were able to screen for clients and keep themselves safe and save up money to leave the people exploiting them. And now that those sites are down, people are going back to pimps. Pimps are texting providers every day saying ‘the game’s changed. You need me.’”

“That’s the difficult position a FOSTA law puts operators in,” Llansó said, creating reluctant censorship by sites fearful of liability. Ads by sex workers are already closing and moving to less well-known or dark websites, said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an author and expert witness on human trafficking. Or they’re moving to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, “where they’re able to hide under the veneer of a legitimate social media account,” she said. 

As a result of this new law, TER has block access to their website from the United States until the law has been repealed or amended, or TER has found a way to sufficiently address any legal concerns created by the new law. TER is not alone in responding to this threat to your First Amendment Rights: Craigslist has pulled all of its Personal Ads, Reddit has closed many Subreddits and sites such as CityVibe and Men4RentNow have gone completely dark. Other websites have taken or are expected to make similar actions. Adult provider site Eros has self-censored the content and images they now allow in their ads leading to many ads and images being deleted.

It's still not clear how the FOSTA law will be enforced to limit online ads. Only time will tell if this is just the start of more to come. 

What you can do now is to update your photos with classy glamour images that adhere to the new Eros Standards that that can be posted in mainstream social media accounts. 

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