This Internet fight has people ‘shying’ away


by Marianela Ramos Capelo

Your inbox has probably been getting a few emails from companies, organizations and even services you didn’t know you were subscribed to alerting you about how their privacy policies, the way they handle your data and thus their relationship to you has changed as the result of a new European regulation, the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR.

And, yes, this happened even for folks not living in Europe. The reality these days is that laws from one place have impact beyond their geographical jurisdiction. And that’s because the platforms and services we use online aren’t tied down by geographic boundaries.

While this could be a good thing, as the GDPR is pushing companies to be more transparent everywhere, not just in Europe, there’s always another side of the coin: enter SESTA and FOSTA.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are two bills that recently passed in the US. These bills claim to tackle sex trafficking online. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the problem is they don’t do what they purport to do.

SESTA and FOSTA are so broad in language they potentially criminalize legal activities, such as sex education materials, legal sex work online (e.g. consensual pornography, consensual and legal escorting services) and even personal ads. For instance, SESTA’s language criminalizes any platform that engages in “assisting, supporting or facilitating” trafficking, without any clear delineation of what these terms mean in practice.

These bills break with what called “one of the most important pieces of Internet legislation ever created.” That being Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This piece of legislation was key to the formation of the Internet as we know it because it deemed platforms like Twitter, Facebook or craigslist could not be held liable for what users posted on them.

Arguably, without Section 230, none of the services we currently use could have been possible, as they would have been sued into oblivion. These new bills create an exception to Section 230, watering down its protections and, with the aforementioned broad language, pushing platforms to proactively shut down anything sex related “just in case.” As an example, craigslist has already shut down its personal ads globally, to the detriment of many marginalized communities.

So with SESTA/FOSTA having such a big global impact on free speech online, how come so little noise was made about these bills? As Open Privacy’s Executive Director Sarah Jamie Lewis pointed out, this issue did not receive the attention from Internet freedom groups or tech companies on the scale of what we’ve seen for #NetNeutrality or copyright (e.g. #SOPA and #PIPA).

I can only venture to say that the mention of sex workers’ rights and sex education preemptively scared many within civil society from tackling this. But this is how draconian legislation starts: by first impacting those that very few are willing to defend. It is up to all of us to not shy away from these key fights to keep the Internet open and censorship-free.

Marianela Ramos Capelo is a graphic designer and part of the communications team at OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

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