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Posting or Hosting Sex Ads Could Mean 25 Years in Federal Prison Under New Republican Proposal

A related measure would open digital platforms to liability for past crimes committed by users.

Gregory Baldwin IKON Images/NewscomGregory Baldwin IKON Images/NewscomLooking forward to a future when federal agents monitor Tinder? We won't be far off if some folks in Congress get their way.

Under a proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–Va.), anyone posting or hosting digital content that leads to an act of prostitution could face serious federal prison time as well as civil penalties. This is obviously bad news for sex workers, but it would also leave digital platforms—including dating apps, social media, and classifieds sites such as Craigslist—open to serious legal liability for the things users post.

In effect, it would give government agents more incentive and authority to monitor sex-related apps, ads, forums, and sites of all sorts. And it would give digital platforms a huge incentive to track and regulate user speech more closely.

Goodlatte's measure was offered as an amendment to another House bill, this one from the Missouri Republican Ann Wagner. The House Judiciary Committee will consider both bills on Tuesday.

Wagner's legislation (H.R. 1865) would open digital platforms to criminal and civil liability not just for future sex crimes that result from user posts or interactions but also for past harms brokered by the platforms in some way. So platforms that followed previous federal rules (which encouraged less content moderation in order to avoid liability) would now be especially vulnerable to charges and lawsuits.

The bill currently has 171 co-sponsors, including ample numbers of both Republicans and Democrats.

Specifically, Wagner's bill would amend Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which says that websites and other online platforms should not be treated as the creators of user-posted content. What this means in effect is that these third-party platforms can't be sued or prosecuted for users' and commenters' illegal speech (or illegal actions resulting from speech)—with some major exceptions. Digital platforms do not get a pass for content they actually create "in whole or part," for instance.

As it stands, states cannot generally prosecute web services and citizens cannot sue them when user-generated content conflicts with state criminal law. Rep. Wagner's bill—like the similar and more-hyped "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" (SESTA) in the Senate—would end this state and civil immunity for digital platforms in cases of "sex trafficking" or "sexual exploitation of children."

But while that may sound like a small concession, it actually opens up a huge range of activity for liability. At the federal level, the above offenses encompass everything from the truly horrific and unconscionable (like sex trafficking by force) to things like sexting between teenagers. And at the state level, definitions can be even more varied and blurry.

Wagner's bill doesn't just stop at carving out a new Section 230 exception. It also creates a new crime, "benefitting from participation in a venture engaged in sex trafficking," and makes it easy to hold all sorts of web platforms and publishers in violation.

Any "provider of an interactive computer service" who hosts user-posted information "with reckless disregard that the information provided...is in furtherance of [sex trafficking] or an attempt to commit such an offense" could face a fine and up to 20 years in prison, the bill states. And nothing "shall 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."

So in cases like, say, Hope Zeferjohn, the teen girl convicted of sex trafficking for talking to a younger teen on Facebook about prostitution, Facebook could be facing a federal charge for participating in a sex trafficking venture.

Goodlatte's proposal, meanwhile, would work by amending the Mann Act, a century-old prohibition on transporting someone across state lines for prostitution. The new section would declare that "whoever uses or operates a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or attempts to do so with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both." Anyone that "promotes or facilitates the prostitution of 5 or more persons" or "acts in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking" could face a fine and up to 25 years of imprisonment.

Note that no actual prostitution needs to take place. An attempt—i.e., an online ad or solicitation, or what some official sees as one—is enough.

Like SESTA in the Senate—which passed out of committee but has since stalled—this new package of proposals is presented as a way to combat sexual exploitation and human trafficking. But all it would really do is drive sex ads further underground, making it both harder to rescue victims of sexual abuse and harder for willing adult sex workers to conduct business safely, while simultaneously enabling unscrupulous attacks on web platforms, putting an insane chill on all internet speech, and opening the way for even more government prying into everyone's digital lives.

* SESTA's companion bill in the House is H.R. 1865. This post has been updated to reflect that.

Photo Credit: Gregory Baldwin IKON Images/Newscom

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  • Juice||

    Both parties are becoming Big Government in both your wallet and your bedroom.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Are becoming"?

  • Hugh Akston||

    Huh, the future conditional pluperfect subjunctive.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Bob Goodlatte to be hoist with his own petard in 3... 2...

  • Citizen X - #6||

    And by "his own petard" i mean "his dick in some kind of ridiculously skeezy sex revelation."

  • Don't look at me.||

    Fingers crossed.

  • Anomalous||

    Live boy or dead girl?

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Welcome to Goodlatte, home of the Goodlatte, may I take your order?

  • Hugh Akston||

    The bill currently has 171 co-sponsors, including ample numbers of both Republicans and Democrats.

    Remember that it's very important to vote in every election because there is a huge difference between Team Red and Team Blue and we must have the right one in power.

  • ALWAYS RIGHT||

    There is a substantial number of Democrats and Republicans whose lives would be in less turmoil if they had hired a prostitute. One CA governor could have hired a prostitute to dress up as a nanny.

  • Hank Stamper||

    Can't wait for the Dems to blame Repubs for this in 10-20 years when Grandma is being arrested for posting an ad selling a rusty trombone on Cragslist.

  • Robert||

    Matters on many issues, not on all.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Campaign speech:

    "In my next term, I promise to make more shit illegal, ruin lives, and burn money like its dung charcoal in the Serengeti."

  • Don't look at me.||

    Wins by a landslide.

  • IceTrey||

    So much for smaller government.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I can't wait to see the contortions Roberts uses to justify this ex post facto law.

  • chemjeff||

    But you know. Republicans are the party of small government.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Do the texting platform and calling platform on a smart phone count as a digital platform? If so, some major companies will add liability for sex crimes to their standard annual budget.

  • ||

    Wagner's legislation (H.R. 1865) would open digital platforms to criminal and civil liability [...] for past harms brokered by the platforms in some way.

    I was thinking of the constitutional prohibition of ex post facto laws, but then I found this:

    No State shall [...] pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law [...]

    Does this mean that the federal Constitution prohibits the passing of ex post facto laws only to the several states, but not to the US (legislature, i.e. Congress)?

  • Rockabilly||

    Looking for sexxxy Freedom loving lady to have Freedom loving kinky sexxxxy sexxx with -

    You are totally naked and then you wrap yourself in American Flag and then you salute my Johnson.

    And then I take off the American Flag, I fold it very sloooowly and carefully, building up the exxxcitement that is happening....

    How does that sound for some Freedom loving kinky sexxx?

  • Mitsima||

    What's with the bitching? It's all right there in Art. I, Sec 8, "Morality", "Internet", & "Consenting Adults" clauses. Read the Constitution every once in while, sheesh.

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