Trump administration sued over anti-sex trafficking law

The Trump administration was taken to court Thursday over new legislation that effectively criminalizes websites catering to sex workers and their clients.

Attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital rights group, sued the U.S. government and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in D.C. federal court on behalf of organization and individuals opposed to the recently passed Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA.

Signed into law by President Trump in April, FOSTA revises Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) so that the operators of websites that “promote or facilitate” illegal prostitution can be held responsible for user-generated content.

Critics including the EFF argue it’s vaguely worded and runs afoul of the Constitution’s First and Fifth Amendments.

“Using expansive and undefined terms, FOSTA’s criminal penalties and ruinous civil liability turn entirely on what content and viewpoints online speakers publish, the content and viewpoints that a platform allows to be posted and the editorial policies a platform uses in determining whether to block, modify or remove material created by others,” EFF attorney Robert Corn-Revere wrote in the 52-page complaint.

“FOSTA represents the most broadly-based and comprehensive legislative censorship of Internet speech since Congress passed the anti-indecency provisions of the CDA in 1996, which were struck down in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling,” he wrote.

The law allows for penalties including up to 10 years imprisonment for anyone who owns, manages or operates a website used “to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” Craigslist shuttered its online personals site in lieu of risking penalties, and Backpage.com, a similar site that allowed user-generated postings, went offline earlier this year as the bill awaited Mr. Trump’s signature.

“I guess people have reasons [to oppose it], but I personally don’t understand those reasons,” Mr. Trump said when he signed the bill.

The Justice Department did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Plaintiffs represented by EFF include the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, “a human rights organization working full time toward affirming and protecting the fundamental human right to sexual freedom,” according to the lawsuit, as well as the Human Rights Watch non-profit group, the Internet Archive digital library, a sex workers’ advocate know as Alex Andrews and Eric Koszyk, a licensed and certified non-sexual massage therapist.

“Although the law was passed by Congress for the worthy purpose of fighting sex trafficking, its broad language makes criminal of those who advocate for and provide resources to adult, consensual sex workers and actually hinders efforts to prosecute sex traffickers and aid victims,” said David Greene, director of Civil Liberties at EFF.

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