As Expected Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Unconstitutional SESTA Bill, Putting Lives In Danger

This was not unexpected, but earlier today the Senate easily passed SESTA/FOSTA (the same version the House passed a few weeks ago) by a 97 to 2 vote — with only Senators Ron Wyden and Rand Paul voting against it. We’ve explained in great detail why the bill is bad. We’ve explained in great detail why the bill won’t stop sex trafficking and will actually put sex workers’ lives in more danger, while also stomping on free speech and the open internet at the same time (which some see as a feature rather than a bug). The Senate declined to put any fixes in place.

Senator Wyden, who had originally offered up an amendment that would have fixed at least one big problem with the bill (clarifying that doing any moderation doesn’t subject you to liability for other types of content) pulled the amendment right before the vote, noting that there had been a significant, if dishonest, lobbying effort to kill those amendments, meaning it had no chance. He did note that because of the many problems of the bill, he fully expects that these issues will be revisited shortly.

As for the many problems of the bill… well, they are legion, starting with the fact that multiple parts of the bill appear to be unconstitutional. That’s most obvious in the “ex post facto” clause that applies the new criminal laws to activities in the past, which is just blatantly unconstitutional. There are some other serious questions about other parts of the bill, including concerns about it violating the First Amendment as well. It seems likely that the law will be challenged in court soon enough.

In the meantime, though, the damage here is real. The clearest delineation of the outright harm this bill will cause can be seen in a Twitter thread from a lawyer who represents victims of sex trafficking, who tweeted last night just how much damage this will do. It’s a long Twitter thread, but well worth reading. Among other things, she notes that sites like Backpage were actually really useful for finding victims of sex trafficking and in helping them get out of dangerous situations. She talks about how her own clients would disappear, and the only way she could get back in touch with them to help them was often through these platforms. And all that will be gone, meaning that more people will be in danger and it will be that much harder for advocates and law enforcement to help them. She similarly notes that many of the groups supporting SESTA “haven’t gotten their hands dirty in the field” and don’t really understand what’s happening.

That’s true on the internet side as well. Mike Godwin highlights the history before CDA 230 was law and the kinds of problems that come about when you make platforms liable for the speech of their users.

In Cubby, a federal judge suggested (in a closely reasoned opinion) that the proper First Amendment model was the bookstore – bookstores, under American law, are a constitutionally protected space for hosting other people’s expression. But that case was misinterpreted by a later decision (Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co., 1995), so lawyers and policy advocates pushed to include platform protections in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that amounted to a statutory equivalent of the Cubby precedent. Those protections, in Section 230, allowed platform providers to engage in certain kinds of editorial intervention and selection without becoming transformed by their actions into “publishers” of users’ content (and thus legally liable for what users say).

In short, we at EFF wanted platform providers to be free to create humane digital spaces without necessarily acquiring legal liability for everything their users said and did, and with no legal compulsion to invade users’ privacy. We argued from the very beginning, about the need for service providers to be just, to support human rights even when they didn’t have to and to provide space and platforms for open creativity. The rules we worked to put into place later gave full bloom to the World Wide Web, to new communities on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and to collaborative collective enterprises like Wikipedia and open-source software.

Meanwhile the Senators who passed the bill will completely forget about all of this by next week, other than to pat themselves on the back and include 3 seconds in their next campaign ad about how they “took on big tech to stop sex trafficking.” And, of course, people in Hollywood are laughing at how they pulled a fast one on the internet, and are already strategizing their next attacks on both CDA 230 and DMCA 512 (expect it soon).

None of those celebrating realize how much damage they’ve actually caused. They think they’ve “won” when they really did astounding levels of damage to both victims of sex trafficking and free speech in the same effort.

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