In February and March of 2018, the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, respectively, passed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking (FOSTA) Acts. President Donald Trump signed these bills into law the following month. The law, hereafter referred to as SESTA/FOSTA, damages the longstanding “safe harbor” rule provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects freedom of speech on the internet.
Section 230 stipulates that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Popularly known as “the twenty-six words that built the internet,” Section 230 allows user-generated speech and sentiments to remain uncensored, without holding platforms and ISPs responsible for that content. We depend on this freedom to work, socialize, and exchange ideas online. Platforms large and small are central to our right to assemble and share our beliefs in online communities.
Under SESTA/FOSTA, these rights are at risk. The act amends Section 230, suspending its protection where online platforms are seen to be promoting prostitution. Online service providers can now be held liable for sexual service advertisements posted on their sites. The amendment also allows state law enforcement officers to prosecute these cases. Together, reforms are intended to disrupt, fragment, and shrink the online prostitution marketplace. Online platforms must censor user-generated content or risk civil repercussions, resulting in limited freedom of speech and expression on the web.