- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2018

President Trump hasn’t even put his signature to the bill Congress approved last week to fight sex trafficking, but its bite is already being felt in the online communities it was aimed at, with Craigslist and other major forums nixing their “personals” sections where people trolled for relationships, sex and other connections.

Former users rushed to share ideas about possible substitutes, while some of the companies took a chiding tone and told users to blame Capitol Hill.

The lawmakers behind the bill, dubbed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, said that was just fine with them.

“FOSTA set out to establish a meaningful criminal deterrent so that fewer businesses would ever enter the online sex trafficking industry. The bill hasn’t even been signed into law, and it is already working,” said Rep. Ann Wagner, Missouri Republican and sponsor of the House version of the bill.

The bill cleared the Senate last week after having passed the House in February. It now awaits Mr. Trump’s signature.

It clarifies Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which had been used as a blanket protection by websites to argue that they weren’t responsible for the content posted on their forums. Now, websites will have some responsibility to police their content.

Just how far that responsibility goes, however, remains uncertain.

Craigslist, the granddaddy of internet classifieds, said it wasn’t taking any chances.

“Any tool or service can be misused. We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline,” the site said in a posting that replaces the personals section.

“Hopefully we can bring them back some day,” the site said.

Reddit, another large online community, updated its policies in the wake of the bill’s passage to ban forums that had hosted transactions for firearms, alcohol and other drugs, and “paid services involving sexual contact.”

That meant “subreddits” dubbed GunsForSale, Escorts, Hookers and WeedDeals were all nixed.

Users took the loss of their online communities badly.

Some said Reddit misunderstood what the pages were for, and there were no actual transactions taking place in the forums. Others complained about communities that remain open, such as ones dedicated to supporting Mr. Trump, which they described as far more cancerous than gun, drug or sex forums.

Most of all, the loss of communities sent users looking for alternatives.

Some online users suggested moving away from forums and toward person-to-person communications through smartphone apps. Others predicted a website based outside the U.S. might swoop in and take over the market.

One workaround was already developing on Craigslist, where people were using the Missed Connections section to troll for partners.

The bill against trafficking grew out of a major probe the Senate’s chief investigative committee completed last year on Backpage.com, which had once been the country’s largest online sex marketplace.

Parents reported finding their runaway or missing children being sold for sex through the website, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said 74 percent of the reports of child sex trafficking it received from the public involved Backpage ads.

The Senate investigation found Backpage was not only aware of the activity, but also actively tried to shield it by suggesting alterations to ads. Instead of taking down questionable ads, the website suggested terms that avoided certain trigger words.

Backpage shut down its “adult” section in the wake of the investigation, but lawmakers said a broader fix was needed in law.

The results were two bills — FOSTA in the House and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican — which ended up being combined and passed by overwhelming margins. The House vote was 388-25, and the Senate vote was 97-2.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the bill censored the internet by scaring companies into overzealous reactions. The foundation said the bill was poorly drawn and could even snare websites that had no knowledge that their forums were being used for illicit behavior.

The federal Justice Department, meanwhile, saw other problems with the bill, which not only applies to current and future activity but also outlaws offenses committed before the bill is enacted.

“The department objects to this provision because it is unconstitutional,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd wrote in an analysis last month as the bill was cleared through the House.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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