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.
Luis has turned on his red light and is open for business. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.
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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