DOJ Finally Uses FOSTA, Over Two Years Later... To Shut Down A Site Used By Sex Workers

from the worth-it? dept

For years leading up to the passage of FOSTA, we were told that Congress had to pass the law as quickly as possible because so many women were "at risk" due to trafficking. And when asked for evidence of this, people would point to Backpage, even though the site had shut down its "adult" section under pressure from Congress a year earlier. Of course, the actual stats that were provided turned out to be fake and Backpage was seized before the law was even passed. The charges against the founders did not include sex trafficking charges. Also, as the details have come out about Backpage, it's become evident that rather than facilitating sex trafficking, the company was actively working with law enforcement to find and arrest sex traffickers. However, where they started to push back on law enforcement was when law enforcement wanted to go after non-trafficked sex workers.

However, with all of the moral panic around the need to pass FOSTA, we highlighted earlier this year that two years had gone by and the DOJ had not used the law a single time to go after any "sex trafficking" site. Instead, as we predicted, the law was being used in nuisance lawsuits, such as mailing list provider MailChimp and CRM provider Salesforce because Backpage had used those services.

Finally, last week, however, the DOJ made use of FOSTA in shutting down a website and arresting its operator. A site called (and some other sites that it ran -- including one with a name similar to Backpage) were seized, and the guy who ran it, Wilhan Martono, was arrested in California. From the details provided, it does look like Martono saw an opportunity to jump into the market vacated by Backpage, and the charges claim that he brought in $21 million doing so.

The original indictment was done in early June, but it was only just unsealed with Martono's arrest and the seizure of the various websites. It does seem clear that Martono sought to be the source for advertising sex work, but the DOJ conveniently mashes together sex work and sex trafficking, because that's the kind of thing law enforcement likes to do.

Indeed, the immediate reaction to this appears to be that plenty of non-trafficked sex workers, who previously had relied on Backpage to remain safe and now relied on Martono's sites, are again put in danger. The Hacking/Hustling collective -- a group of sex workers who came together to advocate around issues such as FOSTA -- put out a press release calling out what a stupid, counterproductive move this is:

“When we are re-envisioning public safety, this is a perfect example of why we can’t exempt human trafficking. Instead of resources going to real investigations or victim support, you have six agencies spending time and resources reading ads and looking for the word ‘blow job’” said Lorelei Lee, a collective member of Hacking//Hustling.

I was going to link to another website that has a blog advocating for sex workers' rights that explained in great detail how this puts sex workers at danger, but honestly, under a broad interpretation of FOSTA, linking to that website might violate the law. That's because after reading the blog post, I saw that there was a link to a "find escorts" site associated with the blog, and while I think I should be able to link to such a blog post, with its cogent explanation for why this DOJ action puts women at risk... merely linking to it would put me at risk under a broad reading of FOSTA (a stupid, unconstitutional reading, but, alas, these are some of the chilling effects created by the law).

Either way, it's difficult to see how this does anything to stop actual sex trafficking. Indeed, again, it's likely to put victims at even greater risk -- while also putting sex workers at greater risk. Studies have shown that when these sites go down, more women are put at risk. Even worse, as noted, Backpage actually helped law enforcement track down and arrest traffickers. But by making everything else such sites do illegal, it appears that (obviously) Martono avoided helping law enforcement at all (the indictment suggests he ignored various subpoenas).

Again, this is exactly as tons of people predicted. When these ads were appearing on places like Craigslist and Backpage, those companies worked closely with law enforcement to go after actual traffickers, and get them arrested. But now, with things like FOSTA, rather than do that, law enforcement can just... take down the best source to find and track down traffickers, pushing them to sites that are less and less likely to help law enforcement? How does that make sense. Indeed, we've covered a number of law enforcement officials saying that the shutdown of Backpage has made it more difficult to find actual traffickers.

And, if you want any more evidence of that: note that nowhere with this announcement is there anything about arresting any actual traffickers. I have a request in to the DOJ asking if they or any law enforcement have arrested any actual traffickers who used these sites -- but at the time of publishing they have not responded. The indictment claims -- somewhat salaciously -- that the sites seized were used to identify "numerous victims of child sex trafficking," including a "13-year-old Jane Doe." Obviously, it's horrific to find out about that Jane Doe or any victim of sex trafficking, but it does seem odd that there is no mention of any arrests of the traffickers.

Because... wouldn't arresting actual traffickers be the goal here?

Either way, this story is getting buzz on Twitter from two communities: sex workers who are pissed off and angry that they're now losing business and the ability to operate safely... and... believers in the ridiculous Q anon nonsense conspiracy theory, who believe that everything going on in the world is a plot to cover up child sex trafficking. To them, this is evidence that the big promised crackdown on sex trafficking rings has begun. Of course, the lack of any actual arrests for actual sex trafficking kinda suggests that's not the goal here.

Still, this whole thing allowed FOSTA co-author Senator Rob Portman to take a victory lap. Someone should ask him why he's celebrating putting women at risk -- or at least ask him where the arrests are for actual sex trafficking.

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Filed Under: doj, fosta, section 230, sex trafficking, sex workers, wilhan martono
Companies: backpage, cityxguide

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jun 2020 @ 12:57pm

    Re: Harder time finding sex traffickers?

    If you arrest fewer sex traffickers, then obviously that means there are fewer cases of sex trafficking. Declare victory!


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