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Big Tech has long relied on the so-called “First Amendment of the Internet” (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) as a shield from liability for content posted to their sites. But that might be coming to an end because of the rise of online sex trafficking and illicit content.
Annie McAdams is a major player in the fight. The Houston-based personal injury attorney, known for winning cases against drunk drivers and pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, is now going after tech companies, in cases representing nearly 100 victims across the country who say they were trafficked on social media.
“I really got tired of having the same story from any different victim: ‘I met him on Facebook.’ Or, ‘I met him on Instagram.’ We usually see recruitment start as young as 12 years old,” McAdams said.
McAdams’ efforts have been bolstered by a piece of recent legislation signed by President Trump in April 2018 called FOSTA/SESTA, the first bill ever to alter Section 230. Last month, the Department of Justice recommended a new series of reforms to Section 230 including a ”carve-out” for when a website knows it's got illegal content but doesn’t do anything about it, adding to efforts to chip away at the shield.
The law is meant to hold tech companies accountable for crimes related to sex trafficking that occur on their websites, but critics say these attempts will ultimately curb free speech on the internet. Attorney Lawrence Walters, who's leading a lawsuit to overturn the bills, said, “We've seen dozens and dozens of websites that included some area of the site devoted to sexually oriented speech simply shut down because they didn't know how the law would be interpreted. Yet they're facing 25 years in prison if they get it wrong.”
For Milan and Ashanti, two sex workers and advocates, they said that FOSTA/SESTA has made it much more difficult for sex workers to make a living online, and as a result, many have returned to working on the streets. Milan said, “The Internet… really helped a lot of girls to get off the street and gave them a better way of life because they were making so much money. They were able to get apartments and get more established but still do sex work that’s safer than working on the streets. So once that bill was signed, that was taken away from them.”
Cover: VICE News' Antonia Hylton with Rob Spectre, the CEO of Childsafe.ai, an artificial intelligence app aimed to stop sex trafficking. (VICE News Tonight/VICE TV.)