Will Sheryl Sandberg And Facebook Help Small Websites Threatened By SESTA?

from the disappointing dept

Earlier today, the Senate Commerce Committee had its markup on SESTA -- the deeply flawed bill that claims to be about stopping sex trafficking, but which will do little on that front. Instead, it will create massive problems for lots and lots of small internet sites. The bill sailed through the markup, getting approved via a voice vote with no discussion or debate. As expected, last week's decision by the Internet Association -- the trade group representing all of the large internet companies -- ensured that the bill would sail through the markup. Supporters of the bill are now wrongly insisting that "tech" now supports the bill.

However, as we've detailed, while the giant companies like Facebook and Google can handle whatever fallout there is from this bill, smaller sites and even users of those big sites will be at risk. So it was extra depressing to see Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg post her glowing, but factually inaccurate, support for SESTA.

I care deeply about ending the suffering that comes from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation on the internet – and we at Facebook are committed to fighting it every way we can. That’s why we’re grateful that members of Congress have reached an agreement on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. This important piece of legislation allows platforms to fight sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that don’t.

Thank you to lawmakers in both parties – particularly Senators Portman and Blumenthal – and to the dedicated anti-trafficking advocates for all their hard work. As this moves through the Senate and the House, we’re here to support it – and to make sure that the internet becomes a safer place for all vulnerable girls, children, women, and men who deserve to be protected.

Lots of us care deeply about ending the suffering from sex trafficking. As we've discussed repeatedly, it's a horrible, horrible crime. But, there is nothing in SESTA that targets ending sex trafficking. Its sole focus is on punishing the tools that sex traffickers use, in the bizarre and misguided belief that criminalizing the tools will somehow stop the traffickers. There is no evidence to support this. There is plenty of evidence that traffickers will just move around to other services -- and some of those services are even less likely to be willing to work with law enforcement to track down actual traffickers. The whole approach behind SESTA is to try to bury the problem instead of deal with the actual problems of sex trafficking. We just wrote about a recent study showing how pushing this activity away from sites where it can be tracked puts the victims of sex trafficking at MORE risk.

Sandberg's support, then, is doubly troubling. SESTA will cause more harm to victims of sex trafficking, while at the same time cementing Facebook's dominant position, by putting smaller companies at significant risk. The cynical among you may suggest this latter part explains Facebook's decision here, though I'd argue that's almost certainly not true. It's much more likely that with all the criticism Facebook has been receiving lately over supposed Russian interference, it had to "give up" something, and it's easy to toe the misleading line that all of the politicians are following by saying this bill is about sex trafficking and it will magically help end sex trafficking. The fact that it may harm smaller sites and Facebook's own users? That's just gravy.

Yesterday I asked if the authors of SESTA, Senators Blumenthal and Portman, could explain to smaller sites like ours how to stay on the right side of the law. Now I'd like to make a similar ask of Facebook: considering its support of SESTA is what allowed it to sail through the markup this morning, will Facebook commit to funding the defense of small sites that face legal jeopardy because of SESTA? Will Facebook commit to creating a fund to pay for lawyers to help smaller sites comply with SESTA? Will Facebook commit to funding defense of bogus grandstanding attacks by state AGs using SESTA?

Facebook's support of SESTA may be a political necessity for the company, but it will make things worse of victims of sex trafficking and for tons of non-Facebook companies on the internet.


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Nov 2017 @ 11:10am

    Re: You were arguing big sites have TOO MUCH to check, remember?

    The people who place the adverts are the criminals, while the site owners who fail to prevent them placing the adverts will now become victims of those criminals.

    Those placing the ads have to provide some means of contacting them, and so expose themselves to the risk of being caught by police doing the necessary police work. Amongst other things, this give the police an easy option for a 'victory', by bringing charges against the site owners, while they let the actual criminals move on to another site.

    Also, as noted by one victim, by driving this trade deeper underground, the victims are forced in the riskier sides of the business, like street walking, rather than working from a hotel.

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