Law Gives Victims Rights to Sue Sex Trafficking Websites

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Apr 29, 2018

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SexA new law gives victims and prosecutors more power to sue websites that aid sex trafficking.

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representative and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) was introduced in the Senate. The combined FOSTA-SESTA bill was signed into law by President Trump in April.

The bill makes it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, and amends the Section 230 safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from its immunity.

As a result, victims of human trafficking will be able to sue websites that abusers used to recruit them or communicate with each other.

Who’s a “Publisher”?

Newspapers, magazines, and other traditional print publications are considered “publishers” of their contents and thus are responsible for libel, obscenity, etc. contained in their pages. They can be sued along with the individual authors of the offending material.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) makes clear that many websites aren’t publishers in the traditional sense. The CDA gives website operators broad immunity from claims arising out of the acts of people who post on their sites. It states that

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.


In order to determine whether the immunity applies, courts will apply a three-prong test:

  1. The defendant must be a “provider or user” of an “interactive computer service.”
  2. The cause of action asserted by the plaintiff must treat the defendant as the “publisher or speaker” of the harmful information at issue.
  3. The information must be “provided by another information content provider,” i.e., the defendant must not be the “information content provider” of the harmful information at issue.

Section 230 only applies to material posted by third-parties — such as random internet users — not to material posted directly by the operator of a website.


As the New York Times reports,

Silicon Valley had strongly opposed the bill, because it would chip away at an existing law that gives internet companies broad immunity for the content that people put on their services. Tech companies that argued against the bill said that the current law has encouraged free speech online and helped the internet thrive.

The bill was also opposed by free-speech advocates and by sex workers.

Some websites offering ads for sexual services have shut down rather than face the risk of lawsuits under the new law.

As Rolling Stone reported,

Many grassroots organizations run by current and former sex workers have been voicing dissent against FOSTA and SESTA for months. They’ve clarified that sex workers choose to trade companionship, entertainment, fetish play, and other services to fellow adults, while those who are victims of trafficking are forced into providing such services against their will. The hashtag campaigns #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA have illustrated that many consensual sex workers believe they will be harmed by this bill that is supposedly designed to protect them.

Some sex workers say that advertising online is safer for them than alternative forms of employment like street-walking.

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