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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/NewscomJohn Lund Blend Images/NewscomA measure making prostitution advertising a federal crime passed the House Judiciary Committee this morning.

"This legislation is about more than just Backpage.com," 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.

Photo Credit: John Lund Blend Images/Newscom

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  • Brandybuck||

    When the hell did "human trafficking" become synonymous with prostitution? How did the two get conflated?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Believe it or not money is to blame.

  • Hank Phillips||

    It's in the Holy Bauble (Judges 19, Deuteronomy 22, Ephesians 5). Also, the government needed a way to beat up on Jack Johnson for whoppin' the Great White Hope upside the head.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    When you can turn you advocacy into an industry...

  • EscherEnigma||

    It's not synonymous, it's just that other forms of human trafficking are even less common in the US then forced prostitution is.

    And American audiences lose interest real fast when you start talking about things that happen far far away.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I blame the Taken franchise.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Prostitution used to be legal in most of the USA and Europe. In fact, the Ottomans used to let Christians from Europe run and work in brothels as part of the Capitulations. Think of it as a religious accommodation.

    In the late 19th Century opponents labeled it "white slavery" in their campaign to make prostitution illegal. It worked. I think this created the link between prostitution and trafficking that still exists in the minds of Americans.

  • ALWAYS RIGHT||

    If a guy wants to get laid he shall commit himself to mindless conversation, time consuming courting, and the expected bitching.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    and the expected bitching.

    Or for some of us it's sharing a post-coital cigarette while laying in a puddle full of assorted bodily fluids.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Smoking? No on Hillary Clinton's watch.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Her watch is over.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    NO SPOILERS.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Not when Crusty is lying next to her in their mutual discharge.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I refuse to partake in the post-coital vape like a dirty millennial cat person, Paul - I'm old school.

  • ||

    Smoking? No on Hillary Clinton's watch.

    If anyone's ever had the phrase "You don't have to smoke to get me into a puddle of bodily fluids." whispered in their ear, I would suspect it was Crusty.

  • Brandybuck||

    Best part of being a man is not having to sleep in the wet spot...

  • Citizen X - #6||

    The only sexual position Brandybuck recognizes is missionary, in the dark, through the fly of his ragged-ass boxers.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Socks ON, like a real man.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "puddle full of assorted bodily fluids" was my nick-name in college!

  • Crusty Juggler||

    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. Not knowing about the exchange or having no intention to have facilitated prostitution would not count as a defense.

    Goodlatte said that in crafting the legislation, he "consulted with local prosecutors, and also with the Department of Justice."

    Great!

  • Hugh Akston||

    He was surprised to find that prosecutors were highly favorable to more power for prosecutors.

  • tommhan||

    Yep, whoda thunk it?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The only thing getting fucked is the First Amendment.

  • Curt||

    Makes me curious whether Goodlatte himself could be prosecuted if a pro and client made an arrangement within the comments section of a post on Goodlatte's facebook page.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    No, but Facebook would be. Goodlatte doesn't own his facebook page.

  • John C. Randolph||

    So, hookers will just move their advertising to sites that are hosted in countries where prostitution is legal, like Germany or the Netherlands.

    -jcr

  • SQRLSY One||

    Or maybe they'll simply use a new, bland euphemism for the sex that they want to sell... "Escort service" or "massage service" is too suspect, too hackneyed, I suppose?

    I propose "dancing partner" or "social etiquette trainer"...

  • ||

    Affordable, short-term housewife.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Yeah, for those who like to hire ladies of the evening who are too tired for sex so instead they'll just watch reality TV with them.

  • Longtobefree||

    And nag about needing a better TV, maybe 4k this time?

  • EscherEnigma||

    You could always go the Alan Reker route and pay a barely-legal guy to "life your luggage".

  • sharmota4zeb||

    How about a dating site for Iranian temporary marriages? It should still be legal is she keeps the wedding ring after the divorce and pawns it.

  • John C. Randolph||

    "Congressional Intern"? "Assistant Producer"? "Lobbyist"?

    -jcr

  • jcbinok||

    Discharge Co-ordinator

  • ||

    Threatening Social Media and Sex Workers

    Unfortunately, your definition of Social Media and my definition of Social Media appear to be vastly different.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Why bother trying to solve complex social problems, when you can just mandate someone else to solve them for you?

    That's the spirit! Progress!

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "...and to generally take more control over their bodies, businesses, and personal safety."

    That right there is your problem. We cannot allow people to even start thinking they have this kind of control, because, next thing you know, they will start relying less on less on government to take care of them.

    And if that happens, next thing you know they will start calling for less and less government! How else are extremely power-hungry but not very intelligent people going to get jobs? Huh? Do you want all those politicos and bureaucrats to join the ranks of long-term unemployed?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Suggested alt text: "Found in BUCS' bathroom."

  • Hugh Akston||

    BUCS is ready for AI because he wants his computer to shame him about his pr0n consumption.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It's like your mom.

    ZZZIIIIIINNNNNNGGGG

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    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.

    Right, which is practically a textbook definition of 'unregulated'. At a time when we're clamping down on AirBnB because we discovered that homeowners are revolutionizing the property rental game, we're not going to let "sex workers" set up shop on the internet.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    If anyone can pay anyone to shove things in their ass, then what will happen to Big Proctology?

  • croaker||

    What grinds my gears is that we can't get strict liability for civil rights violations, but these asshole are about to pass strict liability for merely allowing prostitution ads.

    This country needs a high colonic.

  • ||

    This country needs a high colonic.

    Or as the Joker said in Batman: "this town needs an enema".

  • tommhan||

    I have always thought laws against prostitution were useless because nothing will stop this behavior. Many things can be done to make it safer and even be able to collect taxes on this behavior. Why waste taxpayer money on something you can never end.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    One of the most important things for any business is the appearance of doing something. Prostitution and drugs provide and endless stream of somethings for the police to do. Leading to ever increasing promotion, power, and wealth. If less things were illegal it would be horrible for police.

  • Robert||

    Lately I've been reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. It's about smut books. We've actually come a long way in that even text porn was once treated like narcotics & prostitution; now almost all of porn is legal in the USA & many other countries.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "...be able to collect taxes on this behavior."

    Screw that! They collect more than enough taxes as it is, without having them get involved in who's having sexual with whom, even if it's for money. The bastards need to learn to live within their means, just like the rest of us.

    I mean, if you spend way too much on stupid stuff, you can't go to your employer and demand more money. You'd be either laughed out of the room or fired. But if you're a Pol, that is exactly what you do. Why is that okay?

  • John C. Randolph||

    Wasting taxpayer money is the entire purpose of government.

    -jcr

  • Liberty Lover||

    I just thank God the government is so worried about my sex life and that of others.(sarc) I mean should two consenting adults be able to come to a business decision to have sex? Should publications help this to happen? Why the hell not it the real question?

  • Aegis||

    What possible interpretation of the constitution allows the federal government to regulate sex?

  • Longtobefree||

    The famous "I need more campaign contributions, what business can I threaten?" clause.

  • tommyboy||

    Sounds like most politicians will have to host their ads outside the country now.

  • Hank Phillips||

    I predict a booming enterprise for Mexico (which ran high-powered AM transmitters in the 1920s) and Canada (where they can sell popcorn and charge admission for folks who want to gape through The Wall at the Witch-Burners)

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