FOSTA's First Test Targets Cloud Company Used by Backpage
Plus: a Robert Kraft/spa-sting update, Florida sex-buyer registry nixed, D.C. activist alleges entrapment, and more sex-work and sex-policy news.
FOSTA's first test? Because the Human Trafficking Grifter Industry hasn't yet settled on a post-Backpage.com scapegoat (Asian massage parlors are getting there, but haven't reached full-blown Satanic Panic territory yet), the next wave of "anti-sex-trafficking" lawsuits will apparently go after any service that allegedly enabled Backpage in allegedly enabling exploitation. The first target is Salesforce, a cloud software company.
Backpage was able to beat civil suits like this because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act prevented them, under the foundational internet principle that web platforms and internet service providers shouldn't be treated as the speaker of every message they transmit. To do so would put the web and social media as we know it out of business.
But FOSTA, signed into law last year, amended Section 230 so that any digital platform that facilitates prostitution can be taken to court as a sex trafficker. Now a class action lawsuit is doing just that.
The suit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, says that Salesforce is among the "vilest of rogue companies" because its "data tools were actually providing the backbone of Backpage's exponential growth." It alleges that Salesforce is responsible for helping power legal speech on a legal website that was sometimes used by deceptive actors to ill ends.
You see where all this leads, right? Backpage and FOSTA tested the waters. Congressional conservatives and liberals are now talking about carving out more exceptions in Section 230 or abolishing it entirely. That would allow not just any politically disfavored platforms but anyone that provided any services to them—cloud companies, payment processors, any kind of software, vendors, etc.—to be sued or charged criminally. It could make it completely untenable for many such services to work with companies that let user-generated, social, free speech flourish. That's the end goal. Don't be fooled by the cynical "sex trafficking" spin.
A housekeeping note: Lately, local and national media has been brimming with legislation, investigations, and other news related to sex work. Because I'm woefully behind in blogging about these developments, today I bring you a very special episode of Reason Roundup devoted entirely to sex policy. Let's take a whirlwind tour of the good, bad, and bizarre of it. Carrying on…
Florida police have been trying to strike deals with the men they charged in massage-parlor prostitution stings in and around Palm Beach. County prosecutors offered to drop misdemeanor solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and other men if they would take classes about why prostitution is bad, pay a $5,000 fine, do community service, and (in what's known as an Alford plea) say that the state had enough evidence to have found them guilty if the case had gone to trial. Kraft—who has pleaded not guilty—said no way. Now his lawyers are pushing for the case to not only go to trial but be heard before a jury, not just a judge.
Kraft was one of 24 men targeted by Palm Beach County police. Prostitution stings in neighboring counties—joined by the Department of Homeland Security—led to the arrest of around 275 more men on misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution, authorities say. No one was charged with sex trafficking, abduction, assault, compelling prostitution, extortion, or any other charges that involve violence, force, coercion, minors, human smuggling, or fraud. The middle-aged women working at the raided spa and massage businesses are, however, having their assets taken by the county as they sit in jail on various prostitution charges.
Florida Solicitation-Registry Fail
Florida lawmakers have for now ditched plans to create a registry of prostitution clients. A new "human trafficking" bill would have put anyone convicted of solicitation on a special public database. That part failed, after sex workers and activists showed up at the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee to protest and give testimony. Clearwater resident Grace Taylor told the hearing: "I am your neighbor. I am your co-worker. I am the person in the grocery store. I am also a consensual sex worker, and as such, I am the first line of defense in helping you find those who have been trafficked."
A version of the legislation passed the committee without the solicitation registry included. "This bill, as amended, has made a considerable improvement," Christine Hanavan of SWOP Behind Bars tells FlaPol. "We're glad that we were heard on striking that registry."
The bill is still, as the kids say, problematic. It requires that cleaning and reception-desk staff at hotels and motels be trained on spotting the "signs" of trafficking—a list of absurd and ordinary behavior that includes not wanting cleaning service—and creates new regulatory liabilities on hospitality businesses that don't actually help anybody but state coiffers
But sponsoring Sen. Lauren Book (D–32nd District) has showing a willingness to work with sex workers on crafting legislation that doesn't unnecessarily target them—unlike Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen (R–Fort Meyers), author of the failed solicitation registry idea. "In case it was lost on you, a consensual sex worker, A.K.A. a prostitute, is committing a crime," Fitzenhagen said. "It is not my intent to work with them going forward."
"I'm not sure what's scarier, the idea of putting people permanently on a public list, or aggressively incentivizing hotels to pry into the sex lives of their guests," says Kaytlin Bailey, director of communications for the advocacy group Decriminalize Sex Work.
Dee Curry, 64, a longtime activist and a newly appointed member of the District of Columbia's committee on street harassment, is speaking out about her recent arrest by D.C. police. Curry told the city's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety yesterday that she was charged with misdemeanor solicitation for prostitution in February as part of a coordinated sting.
Curry "said she considers the police tactics used to arrest her as a form of entrapment that she feels the LGBT community and the public at large should view as a misuse of police resources to target commercial sex workers, especially trans sex workers," reports the Washington Blade. She maintains that she is not currently involved in sex work and was not soliciting the police officer who picked her up posing as an Uber driver. "Curry disputes the quotes that the [police] transcript attributes to her," says the Blade:
Curry said she wants to publicize her arrest as a means of drawing attention to what she believes is a misguided policy by D.C. police and some in the community to address the issue of commercial sex work through arrests. She noted that when the undercover officer posing as the Uber driver gave the signal, three or four police cars with flashing lights and sirens rushed to the scene, with at least two officers in each of the cars, to arrest her. In thinking back on how her arrest unfolded Curry said she believes the half dozen or more officers involved in her misdemeanor prostitution arrest could have been better utilized to address the city's growing problem of violent crime.
For information on efforts to decriminalize prostitution in D.C., see decrimnow.org.
Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment last November to automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions "who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation." But in hashing out the details, legislators keep trying to subvert the will of the people and declare various groups beyond the scope of those deserving the vote. Right now, this includes people convicted of prostitution (a misdemeanor on offenses one and two) three times and adult entertainment businesses that break zoning laws.
A sting in Sacramento earlier this month "crystallized" the fact that "despite what law enforcement officials tell the public about their efforts to crack down on traffickers and pimps, they continuously arrest many more of the women they say are likely to be exploited," writes Raheem Hosseini at SN&R Extra. Ten young women were arrested after offering paid sexual activity to undercover officers who had been sent out. Arrest notes state most of the women were carrying unused condoms—which counts as evidence officers can use to make a prostitution case in court. A new state bill (Senate Bill 233) would put an end to this practice. "Using condoms as evidence of sex work is terrible policy and undermines anti-HIV efforts," Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco) told the paper. "We should be encouraging safer sex practices, not criminalizing them."
An update on NXIVM, the cult-like women's group accused of being a sex-trafficking operation:
BREAKING: Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman faints in court after judge seems to suggest that Michael Avenatti was secretly representing her, trying to negotiate deal with US attorney's office in NXIVM case. An ambulance has been called.
— Emily Saul (@Emily_Saul_) March 27, 2019
Bronfman is gone, back in court tomorrow. Led to a car on Gergagos' arm. Geragos declined to answer any questions, saying they would be answered tomorrow when her curcio hearing resumes.
— Emily Saul (@Emily_Saul_) March 27, 2019
- Tomorrow evening in New York City:
We want migrant massage working and sex working community members to know that we have their back! We know that when workers' are able to organize and self-determine conditions for their labor our communities are safer and can thrive! #CopsOutOfParlors #MigrantPower pic.twitter.com/mPcEvZOtmq
— Red Canary ??? (@RedCanarySong) March 27, 2019
- Karina Samala: "To me, it should be legalized. Everybody uses sex to get what they want from their partners. Husband and wives use sex to get what they want. Husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends use sex to get what they want from their partners. What's wrong with two consenting adults having sex in private? What's wrong with that?" —the longtime Los Angeles activist talking on The Advocate's podcast
- The impact of end demand: Policies that criminalize paying for sex while treating sex workers as victims are known abroad as the Nordic Model and in the U.S. tend to get described as "End Demand" policy. A new policy brief from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP)—The Impact of "End Demand" Legislation on Women Sex Workers—looks at "how these laws not only fail to promote gender equality for women who sell sex, but actively prevent the realisation of their human rights."
- Throwback Thursday: From U.K. researcher Eleanor Janega, a look at "Suspect Women: Prostitution, Reputation, and Gossip in Fourteenth-Century Prague."
- An early #FollowFriday?
— Kate (@KateDAdamo) March 27, 2019
- Irish sex workers are pushing back against the Nordic Model:
Laws that criminalise sex buyers are making life more dangerous for sex workers in Ireland—sex workers are forced to work alone, and violent attacks are up 92%https://t.co/PRvjNoA8Y3 @SWAIIreland #DecrimForSafety
— DecrimNow (@ukdecrimnow) March 28, 2019
- A bill in Rhode Island would create a study group on the decriminalization of prostitution:
I am honored to have the opportunity to support Rhode Island's H 5354 Which would create a special commission to investigate the health and safety impact of differing policies governing sex work. https://t.co/jeLxyC3s5u pic.twitter.com/uBTx1JBZyd
— scott cunningham (@causalinf) March 7, 2019