A bill designed to tackle internet fraud and harassment could result in sex workers being censored and losing their livelihoods, sex workers and advocates in the US have warned.
Cathy Reisenwitz, vice president of communications at the San Francisco Sex-Positive Democratic Club, raised concerns about the SAFE TECH Act, which if passed would make websites more accountable for content they host.
She suggested that under the bill sex workers earning money via sites such as OnlyFans would be at further risk of their content being kicked off those and other platforms. “We don’t need another well-intended but disastrous law,” Reisenwitz wrote on OneZero.
The Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism, and Consumer Harms Act (SAFE TECH Act) was proposed by Democrats in February. If passed it would alter Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — internet legislation which currently says websites are not legally responsible for content they host but did not create.
Under the SAFE TECH Act websites would not get this protection for content involving payments,a move designed to cover advertising that enables scams and fraud. Senators Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar, who proposed the bill, said that sites would also be legally accountable for content linked to harmful activity such as stalking and harassment.
“Section 230 was passed in 1996 to incentivize then-nascent internet companies to voluntarily police illegal and harmful content posted by their users. Now, 25 years later, the law allows some of the biggest companies in the world [to] turn a blind eye while their platforms are used to violate civil and human rights, stalk and harass people, and defraud consumers — all without accountability, Hirono says.
“The SAFE TECH Act brings Section 230 into the modern age by creating targeted exceptions to the law’s broad immunity,” she adds.
Reisenwitz raised concerns that if the bill is passed, websites may choose to remove sex workers’ content falling under the ‘paid for’ exception rather than potentially face lawsuits.
“The SAFE TECH Act would likely mean only two types of content see the light of day online: highly polished, inoffensive, pro-corporate professionally produced content and free, antisocial, low-quality, totally unmoderated user-generated content of the 4chan variety, ” she wrote. “This will mean more harassment, stalking, and bigotry on the net, not less.”
Her concerns echoed those recently raised by sex workers about the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act (SISEA), proposed last December, which would make it harder for sex workers to post verified content online, and cause much content currently online to be taken down. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bills, passed in 2018, have also been accused of removing protections for sex workers while attempting to crack down on sex trafficking.
Reisenwitz said that “lawmakers and D.C.-based nonprofits should actually listen to sex workers and other marginalized communities that this kind of legislation purports to help.”
Under the SAFE TECH Act websites would be under pressure to increase content moderation efforts, or risk being sued over content they allow online.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), a US non-profit organisation covering online civil liberties, criticized the act for its “failure to capture the reality of paid content online”.
“History shows us that when faced with the prospect of having to defend lawsuits, online services (like offline intermediaries before them) will opt to remove and reject user speech rather than try to defend it, even when it is strongly defensible,” the EFF said. “These decisions, as history has shown us, are applied disproportionately against the speech of marginalized speakers.”
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation, a sexual freedom advocacy non-profit, echoed these concerns.
“Like FOSTA, the SAFE TECH Act won’t make anyone safer or their freedom of speech online stronger. Instead, it puts us at risk and weakens our freedoms.”