Groups Want Appeals Court To Block Law Aimed At Online Sex-Trafficking

Digital rights groups plan to ask a federal appeals court to block a new law that aims to combat sex trafficking but, according to the advocates, also chills legitimate speech.

The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, passed in March, "casts a pall over any online communication with even remote connections to sexual relations," the online library Internet Archive, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation -- a nonprofit that promotes sexual freedom -- and others argued in court papers filed earlier this year. The groups, represented by rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, argued in a lawsuit filed in June that the law is unconstitutional.

Late last month, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon dismissed the groups' lawsuit, ruling that none of the groups that sued had “standing” to proceed because they weren't likely to be harmed by the law. On Tuesday, the organizations took steps to appeal Leon's ruling to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in March, in order to combat prostitution ads at sites like Backpage.com. 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 new measure amends the Communications Decency Act by allowing victims in some circumstances 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.

Last week, Facebook was sued by a sex-trafficking victim who says the site facilitated her abuse. The lawsuit marked first time a social media service was sued for sex trafficking since FOSTA's enactment.

The organizations challenging the law argued earlier this year that it was unconstitutional for several reasons, including that it didn't define terms like “prostitution” or “facilitation of prostitution.”

"Websites that support sex workers by providing health-related information or safety tips could be liable for promoting or facilitating prostitution," the original complaint alleged. "Websites that enable interpersonal or intimate connections, such as 'personals' or 'dating' information, face obvious risks."

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