Sex Trafficking

Prostitution Ad Ban Creeps Forward, Threatening Social Media and Sex Workers

The bill would gut Section 230 and make sex advertising a federal crime.


John Lund Blend Images/Newscom

A measure making prostitution advertising a federal crime passed the House Judiciary Committee this morning.

"This legislation is about more than just," said bill sponsor Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri), promising that the changes would "wreak havoc" on "hundreds of websites."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) crowed that the bill "empowers prosecutors with new tools" to hold human traffickers accountable.

But Goodlatte is lying—nothing in the bill addresses penalties for actual human traffickers. Instead, it would allow the government to treat websites and social apps as if they are human traffickers if bad actors should communicate through their digital platforms and tools. (For more about how this would work, see my post from yesterday.) The bill would also make posting or hosting prostitution ads a federal crime.

If H.R. 1865 becomes law, the FBI would be able to prosecute Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Craigslist, and myriad other sites where sex workers advertise and/or communicate with clients—even if the sexual exchange is only alluded to and never completed.*

Goodlatte said that in crafting the legislation, he "consulted with local prosecutors, and also with the Department of Justice." Notably, he does not mention consulting with any sex workers, tech companies, sex-trafficking victims, or any groups that work directly with sex-trafficking victims.

If he did, he might learn that digital advertising has revolutionized the sex trade, making it much more possible for women to work without the aid of abusive or controlling pimps; to screen clients before seeing them; and to generally take more control over their bodies, businesses, and personal safety. Meanwhile, it's also been hugely useful to law enforcement and families for finding victims of exploitation (something that would be all but impossible if street-based sex work were the only option or if traffickers start turning to the dark web.)

But in the delusional minds of folks like Goodlatte and Wagner, everyone engaged in sex work will simply stop if there are no web-ad platforms and all the sex traffickers will simply let their victims go. (Drugs went away when we made those illegal, too, right?) So their goal is to eradicate any web platforms where sex buyers might communicate with sex sellers.

After all, catching actual evildoers is too hard. "Advertisements rarely, if ever, will say the person advertised is a 'victim of sex trafficking,'" Goodlatte lamented. Easier for authorities to stop distinguishing between forced or underage prostitution and sex that free adults consent to have.

More profitable, too. Wringing assets from petty pimps hasn't proven too valuable for the feds so far, but sites like Backpage and Facebook are much bigger fish. And Congress is always ready to approve a bigger net.

During Tuesday's meeting, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-New York) was the only committee member who expressed reservations about the bill, saying he was concerned that it had not been fully vetted, did not have support from surivors of sex trafficking or other relevant stakeholders, did not provide "appropriate protection for civil liberties," and could be redundant in light of a similar bill. Nadler asked that the committee refrain from voting the bill forward until more work could be done, but his colleagues did not agree.

* This post previously stated that intent was not required for prosecution, which is incorrect. The original version of this bill, authored by Wagner, stated that nothing in the measure should "be construed to require the Federal Government in a prosecution, or a plaintiff in a civil action, to prove any intent on the part of the information content provider." But the version agreed to yesterday, authored by Goodlatte, says people or entities are only guilty if they use or operate a digital platform "with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution" (emphasis mine).

The new language is certainly an improvement, but not necessarily that reassuring. Prosecutors and politicians already accuse platforms of intending to facilitate prostitution for things like labeling an ad or messageboard section as "adult," and even for forbidding direct mentions of prostitution (under the theory that telling users which words or phrases were not allowed amounted to encouraging users to covertly post prostitution ads).

To be guilty of an aggravated violation under Goodlatte's version, one must intend to "[promote or facilitate] the prostitution of 5 or more persons" or show "reckless disregard" for the possibility that digital content could lead to sex trafficking.