On March 21, 2018, the Senate passed HR. 1865 Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA) by a vote of 97-2, following a vote in the House of Representatives of 388-25. The bill was sponsored by Congresswoman Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), and it amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow victims of sex-trafficking to sue websites that knowingly facilitate sex-trafficking. It also allows attorneys general to find the websites criminally liable.
The bill was the result of several years of lobbying by anti-trafficking advocates and a criminal investigation into the classified ad-service website Backpage. Both chambers of Congress wrote legislation to reform the Communications Decency Act, with the House writing the FOSTA legislation while the Senate wrote the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA). The ultimate legislation was a combination of the two bills. (Washington Post).
A criminal investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into Backpage and its facilitation of underage sex trafficking brought the issue to Congress’s attention. The National Association of Attorneys General argued the company “was a ‘hub’ for human trafficking”, while a report by the committee showed that 93% of the website’s revenue came from its “adult section” (Fox News).
While the bill received overwhelming support, some detractors, including Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), argued that the bill was counter-productive. They feared that smaller internet start-ups would be unable to abide by the new regulations and would be unable to compete with large internet companies like Facebook that would have stronger, more complex algorithms to police their content (Slate).
As a result of the bill, which is likely to be signed into law by President Trump, online forums like Craigslist and Reddit have already taken down portions of their websites that featured “paid services involving physical sexual contact”. Some detractors of the bill saw this as a validation of their fears (Wired).
However, proponents of the legislation argue that detractors of the legislation misrepresent the precise wording of the legislation, which requires websites to “knowingly” facilitate, assist, or support trafficking. They argue that start-up online forums and social networks would be unaffected by the legislation unless, like Backpage, they purposefully assist or facilitate the sale of trafficked individuals (The Hill).