By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new U.S. law designed to combat online sex trafficking could actually make sex workers more vulnerable by shutting down websites that support them, rights workers said in a legal challenge to the legislation.
The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) aims to make it easier to prosecute the owners and operators of websites that facilitate sex trafficking.
But the organizations behind the legal challenge, including Human Rights Watch and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, which provides help and advice to sex workers, say the law hampers their work.
"Websites that support sex workers by providing health-related information or safety tips could be charged with promoting or facilitating prostitution," said the complaint, filed in the District of Columbia federal court on Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Justice, the target of the suit, declined to comment.
The challengers say the law has led to the closure of services that help sex workers stay safe - the client-screening website VerifyHim closed down critical sections as a precaution.
"FOSTA chills sexual speech and harms sex workers," said Ricci Levy, executive director of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, in a statement. "It makes it harder for people to take care of and protect themselves."
The challengers also include an activist advocating for sex workers' rights, and a massage therapist whose business was damaged by Craigslist's decision to shut down its "Therapeutic Services" section when FOSTA came into force.
Website owners and operators found guilty of contributing to sex trafficking face 25 years in prison plus fines under the new law, while victims can also sue for damages in civil courts.
FOSTA watered down Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects websites from liability for content posted by users and has been credited with fuelling decades of tech company growth.
It followed years of lobbying by anti-trafficking activists who expressed frustration at the use of the CDA by the online classifieds site Backpage.com to derail lawsuits accusing it of promoting trafficking in its advertisements.
U.S. authorities shut Backpage down days before FOSTA was adopted.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the digital free speech advocacy group representing the complainants, said it was the first nationwide legal challenge to the new law.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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