Too Far and Not Far Enough: Understanding the Impact of FOSTA
Emily J. Born
In early 2018, President Trump signed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law. It was enacted mainly in response to failed civil suits against Backpage.com, a website accused of allowing, and even helping, users to post ads of sex trafficking victims. Plaintiffs, minors with ads for them posted on the website, were almost universally blocked by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which granted Backpage immunity for what its users post. FOSTA removes that immunity, as well as amends and adds federal offenses. The law has faced much criticism for going too far, but no one has yet asked if it goes far enough. In other words, would Backpage now lose the suits that could not have been filed before FOSTA? To evaluate the law’s impact, this Note reconsiders the infamous Doe v. Backpage case in light of FOSTA. After analyzing the law through analogous statutes and case law, this Note concludes the law is at most ambiguous as to its legal effect. Thus, not only is the law creating negative side effects for speech online and creating danger for sex workers, it may not even be achieving its legal objective. This Note looks at the widespread reaction to FOSTA, the self-regulation of many websites in response, and explores reasons for that reaction, including the law’s expressive effect.