On March 21, the US Senate passed the firmly named Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, commonly referred to as FOSTA. Built upon its predecessor, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), the bill amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — a small yet critical piece of legislation which stated that websites and internet service providers are not responsible for the third-party content on their platforms.

It was heralded as a new era in preventing the trafficking of children for sex in America. However, within days of passing it became clear that the bill would also have a vast and retroactive impact on internet freedom, and would have ramifications on a global level.

One outspoken critic is Australian educator and sex worker Gala Vanting, who spoke with Crikey about how the legislation is affecting Australians.

Flawed foundations

Vanting is adamant to not let the name of the bill fool you, explaining that the law “is written in such a vague way that it’s not actually directed and targeted towards [the] trafficking orgs sex trafficking victims want”. By design, she adds, it also fails to discern between sex trafficking and sex work — effectively prohibiting the latter.

“The difference between sex work and sex trafficking is the consent of the provider,” she says. “Sex work is the willing exchange of sexual labour for compensation. Sex trafficking is a similar transaction taking place under force, coercion, or threat.”

Unlike in the US — where many of the sites and servers affected by FOSTA-SESTA are situated, and where sex work is illegal in almost every state — there are parts of Australia where sex work can be done legally, including in NSW where it is decriminalised. And many of these legal workers rely on online services that can now be shut down without notice, due to the laws of an entirely different nation. 

Since FOSTA-SESTA’s passing, multiple platforms have changed their terms of service or actively started removing content in accordance with their interpretation of legislative guidelines. Patreon has effectively banned makers of adult content, Craigslist has closed its personal section, Skype no longer permits nudity of any kind (including when not part of a transaction), and Google Drive has removed private content.

Due to the US’ instrumental role in the early formation of the internet, much essential web infrastructure resides and is regulated under US law, despite its global reach. As Australians increasingly move online for business, education and pleasure, it’s a cause for concern that our major platforms are located offshore and don’t answer to our elected officials. For sex workers, this is compounded by ignorance and stigma, with many people jumping to conclusions rather than having the conversation.

Sex workers need a voice

Legislation around sex work is an issue that’s been lapping at our shores for some time now. Most recently, the Victorian Liberals have pushed to adopt the “Nordic model” which criminalises clients instead of workers themselves. It is widely condemned by sex workers and outreach organisations. But, for many, FOSTA-SESTA is the most impactful change to sex work we’ve seen in some time — now arriving in many homes and bedrooms without warning. 

“It’s much easier for people to make a moral judgement around sex work,” Vanting says, “[but FOSTA-SESTA works against] anyone who is speaking openly about their sexuality online if they’re not white, heterosexual, or middle class.” Though sex work sees far higher number of marginalised people working than in other industries, Vanting is also speaking to general concerns about free speech. A number of niche, non-sex work communities have also shut down, while the bill effectively clamps down on definitions of what sexual-related content is “permissible”.

Vanting also worries about the knock-on effect of bills like FOSTA-SESTA. The UK is currently looking into similar legislation, and similar discussions could certainly reach Australia as our legislative landscape continues to shift. If they do, Vanting highlights the need for nuance. 

“Sex trafficking is something we can all be against. Anybody who’s speaking out against FOSTA-SESTA is not thus pro-sex trafficking … The alarmism around that stuff kind of wipes out any possibility of rational dialogue which is exactly what’s required to legislate around it”.

It’s a dialogue that was missing in the US from the get-go.

What do you think about the new restrictions? Send your comments and responses to [email protected]