On 6 April, 2018, the classified advertising website Backpage was seized by US federal authorities. A notice from the agencies involved in a joint action against Backpage replaced the site’s homepage, linking visitors to the indictment against seven of Backpage’s staffers. They were charged with money laundering and violating the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution. Backpage is one of several websites advertising sex work that have been shut down since the passing of a new package of bills aimed at cracking down on online sex trafficking. While the new legislation is aimed at protecting vulnerable persons and facilitating justice for victims of sex trafficking, its impact has been enormous for the many consenting sex workers who used Backpage and similar sites to make their work safer.
Offering advertisements costing around $7 and an opportunity for sex workers to screen potential new clients, Backpage rose to become one of the premier sites for advertising sex work in the US and Canada, with the website’s profits soaring from $11.7 million in 2009 to $135 million in 2014.
The seizure of Backpage follows the enactment of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which passed through Congress on 21st March. SESTA and FOSTA were introduced to combat the online sex trafficking trade by making websites that knowingly host illegal activity on their site liable for this content and therefore open to civil lawsuits.
The investigation into Backpage alleged that its administrators employed software to remove terms from its advertisements used by child sex traffickers to signal that the advertised person is a minor (such as ‘Lolita’ and ‘amber alert’). This allowed for the advertisement of child sex trafficking victims on the website and prevented the suspicious activity from being flagged and passed on to law enforcement officials. SESTA and FOSTA’s supporters believe that the new legislation will help protect children and vulnerable adults from being sold into sexual slavery online. The bills were signed into law by President Trump on 11 April in the presence of sex trafficking victims and their families. One witness was Yvonne Ambrose, whose 16-year-old daughter Desiree was killed in 2016 after being sold on Backpage.
However, the new legislation has generated controversy for weakening Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects website administrators, for the most part, from liability for the content posted by their users. Without the Communications Decency Act, sites like YouTube and Reddit would likely cease to exist as they would be responsible for unlawful content posted by a small minority of users (such as the spreading of hate speech). Proponents of the Communications Decency Act argue that it is untenable for such heavily-utilised platforms to moderate all their content. Because of the implications for online freedom, the Internet Association (which represents giants like Facebook and Google) would only back SESTA and FOSTA once the acts clearly stated that websites would only be liable if they knowingly hosted sex trafficking and did not report it.
Beyond the implications for user-hosting platforms like Youtube and Reddit, SESTA and FOSTA have had major ramifications for the consenting adult sex workers who used sites like Backpage to find work. The loss of Backpage has led to the loss of business and job insecurity for its users, as well as the loss of the ability to screen clients and share blacklists.
After the passage of SESTA and FOSTA, Craigslist voluntarily shut down its Personals section. Some sex workers shut down their websites, or switched to more encrypted forms of communication to avoid facing legal action. The site VerifyHim, used by sex workers to share information about potential clients, has since closed its forums and ceased operation of its mailing list.
Many sex workers now face the prospect of engaging in street-based sex work – some for the first time. Without the abilities to protect personal safety afforded by online advertising sites, many more sex workers will face violence in their work. An Urban Justice Center study found that 80% of sex workers who work on the street have experienced violence.
Beyond facilitating safer sex work, the sites affected by the new legislation may have contributed to greater community safety overall. Researchers at Baylor and West Virginia Universities observed a 17.4% decrease in female-victim homicide rates between 2002 and 2010, correlated to the roll-out of the Craigslist ‘erotic services’ section across America.
Critics of SESTA and FOSTA argue that the acts will fail to reduce online sex trafficking by making more sex workers vulnerable to trafficking in the absence of platforms for safer sex work. Mary Anne Franks, Policy Director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, argues that the legal requirement for websites to know about illegal activity to be liable to charges could encourage platform operators to stop looking for illegal activity on their sites to avoid responsibility. She suggests that, instead, the Communications Decency Act should have been updated to incentivise major platforms to police their sites for illegal activity. Furthermore, SESTA and FOSTA’s opponents suggest that the advertisement of sex-trafficking victims for sale online will only move deeper underground, making it more difficult for police to track pimps and recover victims of sex trafficking.
The conversation surrounding the seizure of Backpage plays into a larger conversation about sex workers’ rights. While some forms of sex work are legal, prostitution remains illegal in 49 US states (it is legalised in some counties of Nevada) and the rights of sex workers have been neglected in public conversations about making the internet safer. In the wake of the Backpage shutdown, many sex workers took to social media or demonstrated publicly to raise their concerns. On 2 June, sex workers gathered in New York to commemorate International Whores’ Day, a day to demand respect for sex work and the promotion of sex workers’ rights and safety. Given public attitudes to sex work and the illegality of prostitution, sex workers are often afraid to publicly represent their profession. However, this year, sex workers and their supporters flocked to the demonstration to share their grievances over the new regulations.
Protesters gathered in Minneapolis to advocate for sex workers’ rights after a raid of Backpage’s headquarters in October 2016. Source: Fibonacci Blue
While the fight against sex trafficking may be a worthy cause, for many, SESTA and FOSTA simply are not the answer. Users of Backpage have argued for the need to acknowledge the important safety mechanisms that the site afforded consenting adult sex workers, which have now been lost. A sex worker named Sarah told The Cut: ‘Backpage didn’t turn me into a sex worker, any more than YouTube can turn people into musicians or comedians. It was just the medium. An accessible and free medium.’
Sex workers have responded to the closure of Backpage by establishing new spaces to engage in a sex worker community online, in order to combat the heightened threat to their safety. Current outlets include Switter, a ‘sex work-friendly social space’ founded by sex worker and advocate Lola Hunt, and Red Umbrella Hosting, an offshore web-hosting site for sex workers founded by Melissa Mariposa in response to SESTA and FOSTA. While the effectiveness of SESTA and FOSTA in reducing online sex trafficking will have to be evaluated over time, the impact of the acts on legitimate sex workers has been immediate and highly detrimental. It is clear than in making policy to regulate such a complex online environment, more needs to be done to recognise sex workers’ rights and to defend their safety.
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