Sex, Lies, and Surveillance: Something’s Wrong With the War On Sex Trafficking


A paper called, FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Costwritten by Fordham Law student Lura Chamberlain ’20 and published in Fordham Law Review was cited in an Engadget article that discusses Silicon Valley’s involvement in the fight against online sex trafficking.

Silicon Valley’s biggest companies have partnered with a single organization to fight sex trafficking — one that maintains a data collection pipeline, is partnered with Palantir, and helps law enforcement profile and track sex workers without their consent. Major websites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others are working with a nonprofit called Thorn(“digital defenders of children”) and, perhaps predictably, its methods are dubious.

“Why don’t you just work with Thorn?”

On May 23rd in Patreon’s luxurious new San Francisco offices, everyone at the Sexual Content, & Child Protection conference was upset. It featured presentations by the Internet Watch Foundation on removing online child exploitation material, experts on sex offender registries, psychologists on pedophilia prevention, consensual sex work, and more.

One reason we were upset was the disturbing nature of what we were there to discuss: the facts and factors of child sexual exploitation online.

The other reason culminated within a presentation by attorney Cathy Gellis on Section 230, concerning online content and the law. Referencing the lawsuit between the US federal government’s FOSTA law and human rights groups, things grew especially grave when Gellis described what’s happened since the law’s April 2018 passage and implementation online.

Like Thorn’s nonprofit partners, FOSTA states consensual adult sex work is the same as child sex trafficking. When a woman has consensual sex for art or profit, her online speech about it is now interpreted as an internet crime on par with sex-trafficked children. You might say FOSTA doesn’t “believe women.” Its supporters don’t. Major internet platforms, not known for believing the experiences of female users, rushed to implement FOSTA’s restrictions.

Yet FOSTA has utterly backfired. According to a new paper from Fordham Law School, FOSTA’s conflation of sex work with trafficking makes it “A Hostile Law with a Human Cost.” It states:

Within one month of FOSTA’s enactment, thirteen sex workers were reported missing, and two were dead from suicide. Sex workers operating independently faced a tremendous and immediate uptick in unwanted solicitation from individuals offering or demanding to traffic them. Numerous others were raped, assaulted, and rendered homeless or unable to feed their children. These egregious acts of violence and economic devastation are directly attributable to FOSTA’s enactment.

Meanwhile, law enforcement professionals have complained that their investigations into sex-trafficking cases have been “blinded” — they no longer have advertisements to subpoena, digital records to produce for prosecutors, and leads that can bring them to live crime scenes full of evidence, like hotel rooms.

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