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The Web In Conflict: How SESTA/FOSTA Opposes Global Trends

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How Internet Innovators Are Responding To SESTA/FOSTA

The United States, with its tendency to lag behind global trends on progressive issues such as healthcare, drug use, and sustainability recently took another step away from its peers with a new law – SESTA/FOSTA. Also known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, SESTA/FOSTA bridges a gap in the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and punishes internet service providers who facilitate the prostitution or trafficking of any person.

SESTA/FOSTA makes it difficult for those who make their living as sex workers in the United States to do so safely at a time when other countries are actively decriminalizing sex work. In the innovative space of the internet, though, the global community refuses to sit by. Instead, they’re offering an alternative – and off-shore – digital solutions to support American sex workers.

New Social Networks Emerge

Among the most important tools for U.S.-based sex workers under the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) component of the new law is the restrictions it places on communication. Sex workers rely on the ability to network with each other to avoid dangerous clients and predatory pimps. Enter into this void the Melbourne-based social network Mastodon, and it’s new iteration Switter.

Hosted out of Australia, Switter provides a necessary channel for sex workers to exchange information, guarding both their safety and their financial viability. Contrary to many other sites, Switter doesn’t require expensive ad payments or other contractual costs.

Switter isn’t the only new system emerging from the new U.S. regulations. Another, which is also hosted in Australia, is Intimate, a blockchain-based system for sex workers and others in the adult industry. Like Switter, Intimate includes safety measures, such as checking client reputations before finalizing payment, while also providing the discretion associated with blockchain payments more broadly. Because blockchain is already used for highly personal information like healthcare and finance and is fundamentally decentralized yet data-rich, the system is perfectly suited to the semi-anonymous, discreet world of sex work.

An Issue Of Safety

At the center of the debate around SESTA/FOSTA is the issue of safety, and this issue is also at the heart of these new social networks. First, it’s important to understand that advocates of SESTA/FOSTA have described their goal as preventing sex trafficking – the sale of minors and unwilling adults into prostitution. However, what other countries have found is that decriminalizing sex work and providing regulations is actually the best way to make the practice safer because the reality is that it isn’t going to go away. Canada, for example, decriminalized sex work including the keeping of brothels back in 2013. Since then, the country has seen a significant decrease in the deaths of sex workers because they are better protected. SESTA/FOSTA, on the other hand, creates greater risk by pushing sex workers even further into the margins.

Another country that has successfully managed issues around sex work by protecting those in the industry in Sweden. Sweden uses a legal framework known as the Nordic Model, in which women are not punished for working as sex workers, but men who pay for sex are criminalized. This legal format has significantly reduced the sex trade in Sweden by focusing the punishments on those who facilitate sex work, the buyers, rather than those who are trying to survive by participating in the industry.

Ultimately, even if the U.S. has the same goals as other nations – to increase safety and manage the problem of sex work – it’s taking the opposite road to get there. While facing the wild freedom-focused space of the internet, though, it’s going to be hard for the American legal system to make progress with SESTA/FOSTA. New outlets have already begun cropping up, and illegal activity will always go further underground rather than go away.

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