Techdirt’s Tim Cushing Warns of SESTA Mission Creep

A September 2011 photo of an arrest during the second national wave of Operation Cross Check, an effort by ICE to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants with criminal records
Cushing warns against ICE's use of the term "human trafficking" to justify its activities (archival photo via Wikimedia Commons)
A recent raid in California indicates that agencies could wield the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) as a "hammer" on unrelated illicit conduct.

If you’ve been following the advance of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) through the U.S. Senate, you’re aware that the legislation threatens to rip a hole through the legal principle that has kept the internet free and thriving: i.e., that interactive platforms aren’t liable for user-generated content. But as Techdirt contributor Tim Cushing warns in a recent post, the law as it is written could well lead to “mission creep,” wherein a law that purports to narrowly target sex trafficking “will inevitably be expanded to cover other illicit content.”

A little background:

SESTA would alter Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to exclude protection for websites “that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”

Though it sounds focused, it’s a slippery slope.

According to federal statute, a “sex trafficking” victim is either an adult who has been pressured into the sex trade by “force, fraud or coercion” or a minor who is involved in commercial sex. The term “human trafficking,” meanwhile, covers all types of labor. But although neither term applies to sexual commerce among consenting adults, law-enforcement agencies often conflate them.

As an example, Cushing describes a raid that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents carried out on a residence in Oakland, California, with assistance from the Oakland Police Department.

Oakland has a “sanctuary city” policy that precludes its police department from cooperating with federal agencies on civil immigration enforcement. But this raid, according to ICE officials and Oakland’s police chief, was part of a “human trafficking” investigation, which (presto!) made the OPD’s participation kosher.

But as the City of Oakland’s Privacy Commission later pointed out, the enforcement action yielded precisely one arrest — for civil immigration violations.

So the city’s participation in the raid apparently violated its own policy. But it gets worse. “It appears ICE is using loaded language to redefine activities performed by citizens aiding stranded children,” writes Cushing, citing a story published in Oakland’s East Bay Express.

According to that story, “Immigration advocates are worried that the West Oakland raid could be an example of a new and troubling trend: ICE has recently begun to classify the act of providing shelter and other assistance to unaccompanied minors who recently immigrated to the United States as “human trafficking,” and is charging adults, often close family members, with the crime.”

Writes Cushing:

When someone refers to a bill containing massive collateral damage as “narrowly targeted,” they’re either being ignorant or disingenuous. No one knows how to exploit legislation better than government agencies, and ICE calling acts of aid “human trafficking” (or “sex trafficking,” according to the Oakland PD police chief) allows it to utilize local law enforcement and bypass local restrictions.

This is an IRL example of the exploitability of the terminology tied to SESTA. It’s apparently being abused to allow local law enforcement agencies to violate local laws. Letting legislation like SESTA loose on the internet will result in similar abusive acts, accelerating mission creep’s inevitable advance.

Click here to follow Tim Cushing on Twitter.  And click on the link below to read his Techdirt piece in its  entirety:

“ICE Now Calling Aiding Unaccompanied Minors ‘Human Trafficking’ to Bypass Sanctuary City Laws”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.