The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act of 2014 passed the House last week with an overwhelming majority vote. The Act, sponsored by Representative Ann Wagner, would amend federal law to make the online commercial promotion of underage or coerced prostitution a felony. While the end goal of this legislation is laudable, the SAVE Act is a poorly written policy that threatens Internet freedom and the existing operations of Craigslist, Tinder, OkCupid, Backpage.com, or even Facebook.
In recent decades, the solicitation of prostitution has moved from street corners to the Internet. The Internet is now one of the main platforms for the sale of prostitution. Unfortunately, popular sites that host user-generated content are often illegally misused for this purpose. Dating sites and online classifieds like Craigslist are most frequently plagued by these criminal users.
Reasonably so, several liability protections have been previously awarded to online intermediaries. The Communications Decency Act exempts online publishers of third-party content from any civil liability for such content. However, conservatives have continued to haphazardly seek end-runs around these protections to the detriment of both providers and consumers. The SAVE Act is one of their most egregious attempts yet.
The proposed legislation’s failure to properly define its use of “advertise” allows for prosecutors to criminally charge virtually any site for user posted content. The Center for Democracy & Technology notes that “any tweet, status update, video, reblog or pin could include content that advertises a commercial sex act.” Moreover, the statute would provide for the persecution of any employee of the website who might have had a role in allowing for the publishing of the content. Considering the violation of this statute would result in a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years, the legislation could drastically change the way online publishers operate.
In response to this type of legislation, websites would most likely delete whole sections of their user-generated content in the hopes of quashing any illicit advertisements. In 2010, Craigslist was strong-armed into removing its adult services section when faced with similar legislation. However, the impact could be much more dramatic for online dating sites. Instead of simply logging into Tinder with a Facebook account, for example, the app might have to employ a much more extensive verification system.
The statute as it exists currently already prohibits the “recruiting, enticing, harboring, transporting, and providing victims or benefitting financially from commercial sex acts” involving minors or coerced victims. Any sex trafficker using the internet to advertise prostitution can be duly prosecuted under the law as it stands. The proposed amendment unfairly targets online intermediaries with undue burden. If enacted, the SAVE Act could impose some of the harshest sanctions the Internet has ever seen, drastically alter the business models of multi-million dollar online companies, and set dangerous precedents.