Sex and the Internet

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Last April, two massive events shook up the business of sex on the internet.

Firstly, the FBI shutdown a website called Backpage which is a prolific website for posting online personals that had become a mainstay for sex-workers to secure clientelle. Days after that, President Trump signed two new bills into law, the Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Together these two bills essentially make websites that knowingly allow sex trafficking to happen liable for hosting the illegal activity, meant to make it easier to go after proprietors of Backpage and similar sites. Both of these moves were meant to help the vulnerable people impacted by this internet economy: minors being trafficked by pimps who sought out customers online.

For my Studio Capstone project, I am interviewing women currently (and sometimes formerly) working in the sex industry in order to better understand their vulnerabilities, how their work impacts other areas of their lives and decision making, with the ultimate goal of applying design thinking to problem in their universal experiences. In doing this work, I am consistently thinking about issues of ethics surrounding this topic and my place in it. For the purposes of this assignment for my Ethics course, I wanted to dive into the ethics behind FOSTA/SESTA and the breach of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the implications on our future as a society and government.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

This means that no online platform is liable to the information that is posted on the platform. Under FOSTA/SESTA, this liability is being chipped away. Sudden sites ARE liable if the activity is potentially related to sex trafficking. It is the site owners responsibility to make sure that their users aren’t allowing content that may be related to sex trafficking to exist on their platform.

Regardless of the fact that these laws are not working as they are intended to, and that they are, in fact, creating a more unsafe environment to consensual sex-workers and non-consensual sex workers alike, they also are creating a ripple effect into other places on the internet. Other sites are preemptively removing personal section of their pages in order to avoid liability charges.


In thinking about this in the context of our ethics work at ac4d, I can’t separate the work that I am doing in Studio from the ethical questions that we discuss in Ethics. There are implications to every decision that we make as designers, especially when working with vulnerable populations with whom we do not necessarily share similar life experience. I want to continue to be aware of, not only the decisions that I make on a daily basis while working with women in the sex industry, but also on the larger picture as it applies to all American citizens. While this law may not immediately affect my daily life, as I am not personally using webpages that have become part of this shut-down, the unintended consequences ripple out past just that issue. And if our governments are going to pass bills that limit freedoms surrounding this particular issue, who’s to say that they won’t slowly infringe on issues that are closer to home, or who’s ripples are closer to home?


As as phenomenon, if bills like this continue to be passed, we are at risk of losing on our online freedom of speech one chip at a time, and ultimately giving in to being heavily surveilled by law.

We are currently being surveilled by both corporations and government, and both spheres hold different consequential data on us, whether we wittingly consent to it or not. While there are reasons that this surveillance exists that is meant to help us, there are also severe risks to both types of surveillance. At this moment in time in a post 9/11, post Cambridge Analytica world, these two sphere become more and more inextricable.

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If it becomes common practice to be surveilled in the name of the law, and in combination with the power that comes with the amount of data that corporations hold on the nuance of our behaviors, we could end up in a hyper-dystopian society which takes advantage of our freedoms of speech, expression, and privacy.

Imagine, for example, if we began moving towards regulating our internet use around state level legislature. Imagine this in combination with the level of surveillance that we already allow by both corporations and government.


Casey is a woman living in Alabama, where abortion is essentially illegal. If the government can see not only her hard personal information like her social security number, address history, voting history, and then could also see her soft data collected by corporations like Facebook which could show her liberal political tendencies, the fact that she volunteers for the ACLU in Alabama, messages she sent her friends about an unwanted pregnancy, the fact that she recently bought a pregnancy test, and that she was Googling abortion clinics in Alabama etc. They could decide put her on a black list for individuals likely to have an abortion in their state.

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(In observing these and other current events) how should we, as a society and a government, approach the internet of free speech?


We ride a slippery slope when we consider dovetailing internet free speech and regulation. If we also consider how our data can be used against us in the face of new legislation, we could be faced with an online “big brother” similar to China or Russia, who are currently pioneering the way of internet censorship. We should tread lightly, and take seriously the future of our privacy in the face of government regulation.