When Leaders Who Don't Understand The Web Try To Control It
Our world runs on robots, but is led by senior citizens who think technology is witchcraft. The current Congress is one of the oldest ever. I'm not saying every old person is out of touch. Maybe you do find some 70-year-olds out there on the cutting edge of the culture, mining Bitcoin so they can afford to upload their consciousness to the cloud upon death. But I'm betting the elderly in your life are much more likely to need you to fix their computer than do the fixing.
There's nothing wrong with that. Technology moves so fast that it's almost mocking us. Some of you reading this already feel like you've aged out of knowing what Snapchat is. But things turn ugly when those old people are writing laws to govern how the internet works in 2018. For a potentially lethal example, we need look no further than the recently passed FOSTA-SESTA bills.
"Online Sex Trafficking Is A Menace! We Need New Laws!"
FOSTA is the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and SESTA is the Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act. (Don't worry, there aren't any more acronyms to remember from here on out.) And who doesn't want to fight sex trafficking? When you reduce the bill's intent down to an elevator pitch, you can see why it received bipartisan support in a time of huge ideological divide. It even had its own PSA, packed with a random assortment of celebrities like Amy Schumer, Tony Shalhoub, and some you won't know without a trip to IMDb and a vague memory of what shows they were in.
FOSTA's primary target is Backpage, a classified ad site like Craigslist, but even skeevier. Federal investigations and Netflix documentaries claimed that 73 percent of all online sex trafficking ran through Backpage. Supposedly, it was a one-stop shop where you could buy a used couch that smelled like cat piss or a kidnapped person to have sex with. It's like we couldn't decide if our connected futuristic society should be a utopia or dystopia, so we just did both.
But to do one good thing, our tech-illiterate leaders did two terrible things that will have disastrous long-term consequences. They tried to regulate a system they didn't understand, and refused to listen to the people who did. This, I'm pretty sure, is not the last time it will happen.
On The Whole, Technology Actually Makes Sex Work Less Dangerous
There are still sex workers who do it the old-fashioned way -- standing on a street corner, waiting for Johns to pull up -- but technology has revolutionized the trade in the same way it did everything else. With sites like Backpage and Craigslist, plus all sorts of apps that almost act like Uber for sex, why try to find clients on the streets when you can make them come to you in the safety of your apartment? Oh, and which let you actually look them up first to make sure they're safe?
That's the important part. These sites let sex workers establish a pre-screening network with which they could exchange information about clients with one another to make sure they weren't going to wind up as a statistic (up to 75 percent of sex workers face some kind of abuse on the job). These sites were literal lifesavers. This is the reason any city that had a Craigslist personals section saw a big drop in murders and rapes of women. Not just female prostitutes; ALL women in a city.
But if you're a cranky old person who thinks prostitution is gross and wrong, and that ultimately all of these women must be saved from this evil, well, why not vote to shut it all down?
Regulation Can Often Be Like Trying To Kill A Mosquito With A Shotgun
The bill wound up making a sweeping change. From 1996 until now, websites have been largely protected from being sued or prosecuted for what users post. Otherwise, it puts an impossible burden on social media sites to police billions of offensive messages being spewed in real time. But FOSTA says that sites can be prosecuted for facilitating sex trafficking, which is defined in such a broad way that any third party helping someone arrange sex work can now be considered "trafficking."
That means it's too risky for any site to host any activity that looks like sex work. How are they supposed to tell the difference between trafficking (in which unwilling women are forced into sex work) and prostitution (a transaction between consenting adults)? So two days after the bill flew through Congress with overwhelming support from both parties, Craigslist shut down its personals section. Reddit, another popular resource for sex workers, did the same.
Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Robert Goodlatte defended this by saying, "Prostitution and sex trafficking are inextricably linked." But the thing about that is, they're not. He's referencing the fact that places where prostitution is A-OK usually see higher rates of sex trafficking, which is an unfortunate but logical side effect that can be dealt with separately. In their rush to swiftly punish sex trafficking evildoers, none of the politicians who helped pass FOSTA understood that the online infrastructure they were nuking was safeguarding the very people they were claiming they were trying to protect.
It just sucks that no one warned them about how bad of a bill this was. Well, other than a coalition of sex workers, sex trafficking survivors, and countless tech experts. Oh, and the Department of Justice released a statement saying saying the bill won't do much to stop sex trafficking, and besides, they have more important shit to do than charge people with a federal crime because their website was used to set up a seven-dollar back alley handjob.
Clumsy Algorithms Will Police The Platforms That Remain
Imagine if McDonald's got in trouble because some guys got caught selling meth in one location in St. Louis, and then every McDonald's was ordered to hire robot security guards with meth-sniffing olfactory sensors. But the chemical stench of meth is so similar to that of McDonald's cleaning products that the robot arrests the same poor mop-wielding minimum-wage employee at least twice a day, maybe more if a kid barfs up their Happy Meal in the ball pit. Do you know how hard it is to get barf out of a ball pit? Do you know how hard it is to get barf out of a ball pit while you're being arrested for the third time that day by Robo Mall Cop?
That's the situation we're in now. It will be left to tech companies to start taking down anything on their sites that could be construed as facilitating prostitution or sex trafficking. They're going to do it with automated content filtering bots, since the scale of the task is enormous, and an algorithm doesn't demand a living wage and a lunch break. It's all very technical, so of course our ruling class of septuagenarians fucked it up from the start.
The bill's original language actually made it illegal to develop those automated tools, under the twisted logic that developing filters to block sex trafficking posts would only prove that you knew your site was used for sex trafficking. A coalition of major tech companies which included Facebook, Amazon, Google and others got them to change the bill's language. Otherwise, Congress would have passed a bill that made it a federal crime to comply with its own strictures. It's the kind of mistake that gets made by people who have heard of social media, but have never willingly spent much time using it.
Still, the result is that these policies are in the hands of the same type of bots that get educational YouTube channels locked with no explanation and Twitter accounts of gay users suspended for using slurs to refer to themselves.
This Is A Preview Of Our Stupid Future
The frustration for the FOSTA-SESTA opposition has been that it's really hard to make the public understand why they should care. In the end, even the biggest tech giants wound up supporting it. Who wants to die on the hill of making sex trafficking easier? It's not like most of the public cares about legitimate sex workers, either. But the implications go far, far beyond this.
If you establish that social media platforms and other sites are responsible for the bullshit their users post, you're creating an environment in which free expression isn't profitable. They simply can't risk the penalties if/when illegal speech makes it through. That means having to crank up content filtering to an absurd degree, and even the best content filters aren't ready for censorship on this scale. There's no such thing as common sense judgment in an algorithm. Google made one called the "sentiment analyzer" that can decipher context between posts containing similar words, which is advanced stuff that still manages to suck very hard. Aside from people getting their accounts locked for writing an innocent Facebook post about how they had sex while sitting in traffic, it also means sex trafficking victims trying to have open, frank conversations online will likely be silenced by a bot that doesn't give a shit. Certain subjects will just be off-limits for discussion.
You're then going to see calls for platforms to automatically restrict everything from hate speech to inaccurate news to anything that could be seen as encouraging a crime. Any of that can be supported on principle, but ignoring the collateral damage of enforcement is showing an outright disgusting level of ignorance about the current landscape. You have lawmakers who think this is no different from holding a newspaper responsible for publishing a letter to an editor, as if each missive is still opened and examined by a cigar-chomping newsman in an office before it goes to press.
The world has changed, and it's going to keep changing in ways that are weird and alarming to anyone who's behind the curve. It will help if they accept the fact that not everything in this new world can be controlled.
When you've got a bunch of control freaks like this trying to run the government, it's a good idea to know How To Fight Presidents.
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