Big changes came to the Internet shortly after Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). SESTA, like most legislation, has a name that sounds good on the surface but actually conceals some heinous provisions. One of those major provisions is holding website owners criminally liable for user generated content. This resulted in some drastic changes to sites like Reddit and Craiglist:
So far, four subreddits related to sex have banned: Escorts, Male Escorts, Hookers, and SugarDaddy. None were what could accurately be described as advertising forums, though (to varying degrees) they may have helped connect some people who wound up in “mutually beneficial relationships.” The escort forums were largely used by sex workers to communicate with one another, according to Partridge. Meanwhile, the “hooker” subreddit “was mostly men being disgusting,” according to Roux, “but also was a place that sometimes had people answering educational questions in good faith.”
Reddit yesterday announced changes to its content policy, now forbidding “transactions for certain goods and services,” including “firearms, ammunition, or explosives” and “paid services involving physical sexual contact.” While some of the prohibited exchanges are illegal, many are not.
Yet they run close enough up against exchanges that could be illegal that it’s hard for a third-party like Reddit to differentiate. And the same goes for forums where sex workers post educational content, news, safety and legal advice. Without broad Section 230 protections, Reddit could be in serious financial and legal trouble if they make the wrong call.
The passage of SESTA set a precedence that will certainly expand. Today Section 230 protections can be revoked for user generated content about sex trafficking. Tomorrow it could be revoked for user generated content involving hate speech, explaining the chemistry and biology behind how prohibited drugs work, showing the mechanics of how a machine gun operates, and so on. User generated content is now a liability and will only become more of a liability as the precedence is expanded.
Will this rid the world of content about sex work, drugs, and guns? Of course not. It will merely push that content to anonymized servers, commonly referred to as the “darkweb.” As laws make hosting content on the non-anonymized Internet a legal hazard, Internet users will find that they need tools like I2P and the Tor Browser to access more and more of the content they desire. The upside to this is that it will lead to a tremendous increase in resources available to developers and operators of “darkweb” technologies. Eventually the laws passed to thwart unapproved behavior will again make restricting unapproved behavior all but impossible.