A new law aimed at combatting sex trafficking is having a "chilling effect" on legitimate online speech, a coalition of advocates says in a new lawsuit.
The advocates, including a massage therapist, the online library Internet Archive and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation -- a nonprofit that promotes sexual freedom -- are asking a federal judge in Washington, D.C. to block enforcement of the new law.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, passed in March, "casts a pall over any online communication with even remote connections to sexual relations," the groups argue in a complaint filed Thursday. "Since FOSTA’s passage, numerous interactive computer service providers that enable interpersonal contact by their users, including many that lack even a remote connection to content that might be considered sexually oriented, have removed content, closed down entire sections, or been shuttered altogether out of fear of state or federal prosecution, or ruinous civil liability," the groups add.
The lawsuit notes that Craigslist shuttered its personals section as soon as the law was passed.
Congress passed the measure in order to combat sex trafficking at sites like Backpage.com, which has long been accused of allowing prostitution ads. The new law revises the 22-year-old Communications Decency Act, which previously protected Backpage and other online companies -- including Craigslist, Facebook and Google -- from liability in civil suits over illegal ads posted by users; the Communications Decency Act also protects the services from prosecutions in state court, but not federal court.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act specifically amends the Communications Decency Act by allowing victims to sue websites that knowingly promote or facilitate prostitution. The new measure also allows state prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the operators of websites that facilitate prostitution.
The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposed the new law, is representing the plaintiffs. Among other arguments, the EFF says in the complaint that the new law is too broad -- and also too vague about the kinds of activity that "promote" or "facilitate" prostitution -- to be constitutional.
"The law provides no definitions ... for what might constitute promotion or facilitation of prostitution or trafficking," the lawsuit states.
"Websites that support sex workers by providing health-related information or safety tips could be liable for promoting or facilitating prostitution," the EFF alleges in the complaint. "Merely indicating online without negativity that a person is a sex worker – thus 'promoting the[ir] prostitution' -- could trigger similar ruinous liability. Additionally, websites that enable interpersonal or intimate connections, such as 'personals' or 'dating' information, face obvious risks."
The complaint adds that the Internet could now be subject to both criminal prosecution and civil liability, because some of the content hosted by the archive -- including prior versions of websites and information about books -- "could be construed as promoting or facilitating prostitution, or assisting, supporting, or facilitating sex trafficking."