Stamping Out Online Sex Trafficking May Have Pushed It Underground

A change in a law to hold tech platforms accountable had almost universal support in Congress last year. Now, some are revisiting their decision.

People marching in support of decriminalizing sex work and against the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act in Las Vegas in June.
Credit…John Locher/Associated Press

By David McCabe and

WASHINGTON — To combat the ills of the internet, federal lawmakers have increasingly focused on a decades-old law that shields tech companies like Facebook and YouTube from liability for content posted by their users.

Last year, lawmakers approved chipping away at the law, voting overwhelmingly for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which holds tech platforms accountable when people use their sites for sex-trafficking schemes. They have since floated other changes as well, like making Facebook or other platforms liable when opioids are sold on their sites.

But now, as the real-world effects of the sex-trafficking change take hold, some experts and politicians say the results are not all positive. And even some lawmakers who have championed a crackdown on Big Tech are now calling to revisit the change. On Tuesday, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, two of the tech industry’s loudest critics, joined 11 other lawmakers in backing a federal study of its effects.

Law enforcement officials say that it is sometimes more difficult to track traffickers, because the law pushed them further underground. Advocates say that sex workers now face higher safety risks. The removal of sites advertising sex hinders their ability to vet their clients, the advocates say, and is pushing more of them onto the streets.


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The renewed focus on the 2018 measure illustrates the difficulty of regulating the internet, including changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 law that enshrined platforms’ widespread immunity for what their users post. Even when lawmakers reach a consensus that a change is necessary — as was the case with sex trafficking — the ramifications can be wider than many expect.

“It’s really a good test case as we’re looking at other types of carve-outs to Section 230,” said Jeff Kosseff, an expert on the Section 230 protections. Lawyers across the country have also fought to limit the protections, arguing they don’t apply in cases where a digital product is defective. A set of anti-trafficking lawsuits in Texas threatens to chip away at the protections as well.

ImagePresident Trump signing the anti-sex-trafficking act last year.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

When lawmakers approved the law last year, it was hailed as a way to catch up to the reality that the bartering of children and adults had moved from the streets to the web. It came after alarming allegations emerged about how Backpage, a classifieds site, may have been playing a role in trafficking.

Advocates for sex workers warned ahead of the vote in Washington about some of the potential downsides of the law. But they struggled to break through to lawmakers, who were hearing testimony from groups representing trafficking survivors.


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“It misunderstands the way that trafficking works, if you think that making it less visible reduces the occurrence,” said Kate D’Adamo, an advocate for sex workers’ rights.

Their concerns have found a broader audience in recent months, even bubbling up on the presidential campaign trail. During a CNN town hall with the Democratic candidates this fall, for example, a questioner asked Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who had voted for the bill, what she would do to “counteract the negative impact this law has had.”

Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California who was one of the few votes against the bill last year, said he believed Congress should have heard more about those concerns. He helped write the new legislation to study the law after hearing more from sex worker advocates.

“They didn’t hear the perspective of the impact it’s having on sex workers,” he said of his colleagues. “This is a cautionary tale that we have to be very deliberate, thoughtful, inclusive in how we regulate the internet.”


Representative Ro Khanna helped write new legislation to study the law after hearing more from sex worker advocates.
Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Mr. Khanna said that if a study of the law showed harm to sex workers, he hoped it would bolster the case for a repeal of the 2018 law.

Many supporters of the 2018 law say it has had a positive effect on the internet, and has helped curb sex trafficking. They note that no site has cropped up to replace Backpage, which was taken down as part of a federal criminal case before the law passed.


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Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who sponsored the 2018 law, said in a statement that the sex trafficking carve-out was written to “change tech industry practices,” and that it had succeeded.

Any website that closed down because of the law, he said, “did so because it was knowingly facilitating sex trafficking or it was misled by critics of the law.”

But sex worker advocates point to changes on Craigslist, the classified site, and Reddit, the discussion board. Both sites removed swaths of content that referred to sex because the companies found it too difficult to tell whether people featured in the posts were being trafficked. Craigslist shuttered its personals section, for example, and Reddit closed forums called “Escorts” and “SugarDaddy.”

“Any tool or service can be misused,” Craigslist said in a statement at the time, explaining its decision to remove some ads in response to the law. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services.”

The company did not respond to recent requests for comment.

Mr. Kosseff said the moves by Craigslist and other sites demonstrated that even minor changes to Section 230 could alter the venues for speech online.

“Now, whether that’s good or bad, that really depends on what your goals are,” he said.

Kate Conger is a technology reporter in San Francisco, covering privacy, policy and labor. Previously, she wrote about cybersecurity for Gizmodo and TechCrunch. @kateconger

A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Did Law Go Too Far On Online Sex Ads?