A few days after inciting the attempted coup at the US Capitol, Donald Trump was finally banned from Twitter, Facebook, and a host of other online platforms.
Conservatives immediately began howling about how the president losing access to Twitter is akin to a First Amendment violation. But in reality, it’s conservatives who have been at the center of an ongoing effort to restrict speech online—specifically from sex workers, who depend on online platforms for their own safety and financial security.
Barely 48 hours after the Capitol attack, Twitter permanently banned Trump, Facebook suspended his account, and payment processor Stripe booted his campaign website. Parler, where rioters had been planning their attack in the open for months, lost access to the Apple and Google app stores, as well as web hosting on Amazon Web Services.
In response, conservatives have ramped up their ongoing freakout about online censorship, claiming “Free Speech Is Under Attack!” and “This censorship must stop.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) likened being de-platformed to “beatings,” and said Twitter is promising they’ll continue “Until woketopia is achieved.”
Yet platforms have been censoring speech as long as they’ve existed—and more often than not, at the behest of conservatives. For example, wealthy agribusiness barons accused of human trafficking are funding disinformation campaigns to implicate porn in human trafficking. According to a 2017 United Nations report, about 19 percent of human trafficking victims are exploited for sex. Agriculture makes up 7 percent of human trafficking, with the rest spread between construction, manufacturing, and other purposes.
Visa and MasterCard recently dropped Pornhub, caving to the demands of Evangelical anti-porn organizations. And many conservative commentators are calling for outright bans on online porn. As of 2019, 16 states had declared pornography a “public health crisis,” a first step toward banning porn.
Last year, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced the EARN IT Act, which would have made platforms liable for user activity that involves sex and minors. Not only is this totally unnecessary, as platforms are already liable for child sexual exploitation under federal law, but it’s also unlikely to help the problem. In 2019 alone, tech companies sent more than 45 million instances of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) to the Department of Justice, most of which they declined to investigate. The EARN IT Act doesn't provide any resources for proven investigation or prevention programs. What it does do is threaten online speech and privacy.
But the main way conservatives are trying to force Big Tech to bend to their will is their campaign to kill Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which allows platforms to moderate user-generated content without being liable for that content.
Republicans in Congress like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) have been attacking 230 and misrepresenting what it does. Realizing they’re no longer in the majority, conservatives want it gone in order to force online platforms to amplify their voices.
But making platforms liable for everything anyone posts if they do any moderation whatsoever would only lead to more online censorship. Since few people have the stomach to host 4chan, most platforms would opt for the latter, further restricting speech.
We don’t need to hypothesize about what getting rid of Section 230 would do to online speech, because we have an example in the last big legislative carve-out for Section 230.
In 2018, FOSTA carved out an exemption in the law for “sex trafficking.” This new liability motivated platforms to purge vast swaths of sex-related content from their servers. Google and other cloud-storage sites started scanning users’ private files for sex-related content and deleting it without warning or permission. Reddit banned multiple subreddits. And Microsoft started scanning its services for adult content. Sex educators lost their content. Sex workers lost their lives.
Websites like Craigslist and Backpage once helped sex workers avoid police violence, identify and share lists of dangerous clients, and negotiate rates and boundaries online without pimps. In many cities, the launch of Craigslist Erotic Services coincided with a drop in all-female homicide by as much as 17 percent within a few years.
FOSTA muzzled these sites, forcing sex workers back into street work and using pimps. Within a month of FOSTA’s passage, thirteen sex workers were reported missing, and two took their own lives. Across the country, sex workers turned up missing and dead. According to a 2020 study on the law's impact, 99 percent of those who used the internet for sex work said FOSTA doesn't make them feel safer.
Despite all that censorship and loss, FOSTA doesn't actually reduce sex trafficking. Instead, it makes it more difficult for law enforcement to find and rescue victims. The idea that FOSTA combats sex trafficking has also been strongly opposed by sex workers, advocates, sex trafficking survivors, and even the Department of Justice.
There are many good reasons to be concerned about censorship as a norm. Suppressing speech online makes it harder for law enforcement to track terrorists, rescue human trafficking victims, and find the sources of child sexual abuse material.
But the biggest reason is that online speech restrictions generally benefit the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. Having lost their majority in both houses of Congress, conservatives claim to want to expand free speech in order to be heard. But in reality they’re only interested in using government violence to bully websites into giving them a platform.
As we’ve seen with sex-related content after FOSTA, removing Section 230 protections would force platforms to choose between zero moderation or extremely heavy moderation. In the end, deplatforming would become as common for everyone else as its been for sex workers and sex educators since 2018.
We can't let the people who are leading the crusade against free speech co-opt the term in their quest to destroy the law that actually makes it possible online.