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Critics Say Sex Trafficking Law Will Backfire

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(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

This April 6, 2018, file photo shows a screen shot of the website Backpage.com in Los Angeles. A 1996 law that shields online services from being liable for what their users do would be weakened by a sex-trafficking bill awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.

This month, President Trump enacted a new law that led to the closure of some personal ads on Craigslist. And a website called Backpage.com was shut down while its founders have been indicted for aiding prostitution.

The law, called FOSTA, is intended to curb online sex trafficking; it forbids sex advertising sites.

And while that sounds good on its face, some critics say it might actually lead to more serious problems.

“What the new law does is it allows the FBI and law enforcement and individuals to sue platforms of any kind online for third-party hosts and content,” Barb Brents, a professor of sociology at UNLV, told KNPR's State of Nevada.

She explained that platforms like Craigslist and Backpage.com have long said they are simply platforms for information and couldn't be held responsible for what people posted on that format. 

But under the new law, people can sue them for what other people post.

Supporters of the law say those sites are being used to traffic children and people who don't want to be sex workers. 

Brents said there is no real evidence that real traffickers are using those sites, but the sites are used by consensual sex workers. With them shut down or otherwise threatened people say those sex workers are losing an important screening mechanism.

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“There is absolutely not screening capabilities at this point as we see all of these online platforms closing down sex workers have no means by which they can screen clients,” former sex worker Juniper Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said people will continue to sell sex to make money but they'll just be doing it in a more risky way and she doesn't believe shutting down sites will help stop true exploiters.

“Absolutely, I agree that there are violent exploiters in the sex industry," she said, "I’m not so sure that the solution to mitigate that kind of exploitation is to remove all of the safety nets that sex workers have made for themselves.”

She believes the best way to really stop exploiters is to decriminalize all forms of sex work.

Brents said the country's that engage in a harm reduction approach, which is focusing less on the moral issues of sex work and more on reducing the risks of the work, have fewer trafficking problems. 

"Instead of focusing on eliminating prostitution or sex work, by criminalizing some part of the exchange, you reduce the harm,” Brents said.

Besides putting sex workers in harms way, Fitzgerald said the new law could hurt other platforms. 

“People really need to wake up and see that Tinder is next," she said, "All of these online platforms that facilitate consensual adult sex will likely be incriminated under this law.”

Brents agrees that the law could impact "internet freedom generally."

 

Guests

Barb Brents, professor of sociology, UNLV; Juniper Fitzgerald, former sex worker

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