At around 2 a.m. last night, Reddit banned several longtime sex worker forums from the platform. The move comes just a few hours after the Senate passed bill making digital facilitation of prostitution a federal crime. Under the new law, social media sites and other centers of user-generated content can be held criminally liable.
For months, sex workers have warned that the passage of “SESTA” or “FOSTA” – two equally bad bills vying for dominance; FOSTA passed yesterday which would mark the end of all online forums for communicating with clients, lawyers or with each other. To sex workers like Liara Roux, Louise partridge, and Jiz lee, Reddit’s removal of these subreddits confirmed their fears about the new legislation.
Same if individuals are not targeted by law enforcement for placing ads, and even though individual cases brought by state prosecutors are declared unconstitutional, many platforms preventively ban anything related to distance to sex work rather than risk it.
So far, four sex-related subreddits have been banned: Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy. None were what could be accurately described as The advertisement forums, although (to varying degrees) they may have helped connect some people who have found themselves in “mutually beneficial relationships.” Escort forums were widely used by sex workers to communicate with each other, according to Partridge. Meanwhile, the “prostitute” subreddit “was mostly made up of disgusting men,” according to Roux, “but it was also a place where people sometimes answered educational questions in good faith.”
This submarine had an insult in the name and was mostly made up of disgusting men, but it was also a place where sometimes people answered educational questions in good faith. Instead of increased moderation and a name change, it has been removed entirely today. Dead canary. pic.twitter.com/efAFMW9R4z
– Liara Roux (@LiaraRoux) March 22, 2018
If you visit the Reddit “Hooker” community now, you will see a notice saying “This subreddit has been banned due to a violation of our content policy”. The “Escorts” and “Male Escots” pages provide a bit more detail: “This subreddit has been banned due to a violation of our content policy, in particular, a violation of Reddit’s policy against transactions involving prohibited goods or services. “
Reddit yesterday announced changes to its content policy, now prohibiting “transactions for certain goods and services”, including “firearms, ammunition or explosives” and “paid services involving physical sexual contact”. While some of the banned exchanges are illegal, many are not.
However, they are quite close to the exchanges that could be illegal that it is difficult for a third party like Reddit to differentiate themselves. And the same goes for forums where sex workers post educational content, news, safety and legal advice. Without the extensive protections of Section 230, Reddit could have serious financial and legal problems if it makes the wrong call.
Some have suggested that the new content policy, not the FOSTA, is to blame for shutting down sex-related subreddits. But FOSTA can also help explain Reddit’s new content policy as a whole. (Reddit did not respond to my request for comment Thursday morning.)
FOSTA seriously undermines section 230, the federal provision that protects web publishers from being treated as the speakers of user-generated content. FOSTA supporters have insisted that this is only a renovation of Section 230, not a demolition. But as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) – who co-wrote the language for Section 230 in the ’90s – noted yesterday, once you dug a loophole for a bad thing (in this case change is supposed to stop sex trafficking), it’s easy for lawmakers and courts to dig loopholes and justifications for everything.
After all, the murder is pretty serious. And everyone is pretty excited about the “opioid epidemic” right now. Weapons too. Do you think Congress can resist asking if the websites that facilitate these crimes shouldn’t be as responsible as those that engage in the sex trade?
In case it’s not clear, Reddit’s actions today to update their policies prove that sites will respond to SESTA / FOSTA quickly and in the ways we feared most. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but we risk losing the ability to even talk about theoretically sex work online.
– Liara Roux (@LiaraRoux) March 22, 2018
But as Wyden also pointed out yesterday, this strategy doesn’t mean more sex traffickers – or murderers, illegal arms dealers, etc. – will be arrested and punished (and perhaps less globally, for various reasons). It just means treating websites like criminals instead, which would make a lot of money for the government, but not doing anything for security or justice.
“Section 230 was never intended to protect incumbents,” Wyden told colleagues in the Senate on Wednesday. Yet “despite the fact that Section 230 underpins the Internet framework as we know it today, there is a significant effort to suppress and collapse it.” The result will be “a huge chilling effect on speech in America,” Wyden warned.
Looks like we are already seeing the effects.