Online classified site Craigslist abruptly shut its personals section just days after Congress approved a bill expanding the criminal and civil liability of website operators over user-generated content. President Trump is expected to soon sign the measure into law.
In an attempt to curb sex trafficking, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) amends a bedrock law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — that helped the internet flourish by shielding websites from liability for outside content.
Reddit also shuttered sections of its website as part of a policy update that prohibited “paid services involving physical sexual contact,” but the company did not specifically call out FOSTA. Reddit’s policy change appears to have affected the sections Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy.
Those moves, and others by less popular sites, appeared to validate the concerns of the bill’s opponents, who said the measure would prompt some site operators to ban or remove content to avoid running afoul of the new law. The measure weakens the “Good Samaritan” clause in Section 230 that protected internet companies trying their best to moderate illegal sex trafficking on their platforms. Legislators amended that clause after a judge in California dismissed criminal charges against Backpage.com over online ads featuring underage girls because, the judge said, the website and its CEO were shielded by Section 230.
Liara Roux, a sex worker, political organizer, and adult-media producer and director, says a handful of other sites shut advertising forums, including The Erotic Review and CityVibe, hours after FOSTA passed. “[E]verything we've been warning people about for a year has been proven true within 24 hours, before it's even signed into law,” Roux said in an email to WIRED.
VerifyHim, a tool that helps sex workers avoid abusive clients and describes itself as “the biggest dating blacklist database on earth,” also said Thursday that it is “working to change the direction of the site.” Kate D'Adamo, a partner with the consulting firm Reframe Health and Justice, says VerifyHim has been a particularly vital safety and screening mechanism for sex workers.
Roux says these recent closures come on the heels of other efforts by tech companies that began in 2017, to ban or shadow ban sex workers from their platforms. “Not one of these sites, including the big social media companies acting in knee jerk ways, wants this. … The people who run safety resources are scared, scared for themselves and scared for their friends,” she said.
In an announcement Thursday, Craigslist said, “Any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.” Craigslist did not respond to questions from WIRED.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), a cosponsor of the bill, derided Craigslist's announcement. “If Craigslist is really telling us that they can’t run a page on their website without knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, that would certainly be a damning admission,” he said in a statement. 1
In a statement, a spokesperson for Reddit said the site added a section to its content policy “forbidding transactions for certain classes of goods and services. Moving forward, we are prohibiting transactions that are either illicit or strictly controlled. Communities focused on such transactions and users who attempt to conduct them will be banned from the site.”
Reddit declined to say whether its policy change was related to FOSTA, but the company signed a letter to members of Congress earlier this month protesting the bill. The letter was organized by Engine, a nonprofit representing tech startups, and was also signed by Automattic (the company that owns WordPress), Patreon, Cloudflare, Twitter, Match Group (the company that owns Tinder, OkCupid, and Match.com), Pinterest, Wikimedia Foundation, Github, Medium, and Yelp.
The tech industry was initially united against this legislative effort, but the Internet Association, a trade group representing major tech firms, reversed its position under pressure from Facebook, which was facing additional regulatory pressure from the Russia investigation, WIRED reported in December. Reddit is also a member of Internet Association, as is Google, which lobbied heavily against earlier versions of the legislation.
Evan Engstrom, executive director of Engine, said he expected this response given the ambiguity of the bill, especially for websites “that have large user bases commenting on a range of topics.”
“This isn’t at all a publicity thing. This is just a reality of how you have to do business when there’s potential criminal liability for content that you may not necessarily see,” says Engstrom. He expressed hope Congress would amend the new law to remove some of the ambiguity.
D'Adamo says she plans to reach out to members of Congress and nonprofits that advocated for the bill. “They were pretty explicit that sex workers and the community was wrong, and within 48 hours, we have already started facing the collateral consequences that everyone knew was coming.
“If this was about ending violence, then I want to know what their commitment is for violence against people who trade sex,” D’Adamo says.
1 UPDATE, 6:20PM: This article was updated to include a statement from Senator Richard Blumenthal.
- Congress approved the new law to curb sex trafficking, but opponents warned that it would dampen online speech.
- A Senate cosponsor argued in support of the bill in this article.
- Legislative maneuvering over the bill began in earnest when a tech trade group opened the door to amending the Communications Decency Act.