In her new book on the history of sex and the internet, Motherboard senior editor Samantha Cole strikes a blow against online censorship and gets the story of Backpage mostly right.
Normally, I don’t like to read books on Kindle, but in the case of Samantha Cole’s breezy, brilliant sex-positive chronicle, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected History, I practically gulped it down over the course of 24 hours, leaving my eyes sore and my gray matter nourished.
Talk about a pleasant surprise. I’m so used to a steady drumbeat of writers, politicians and activists advocating for online censorship of one kind or another, that to encounter someone who approaches life on the internet with a sense of wonder and curiosity, rather than dread, reassures me that I’m not some libertine outlier from humanity.
An added bonus: Cole, a senior editor for Vice Media’s Motherboard, also gets right the broad strokes of the Backpage story, which so many journalists get wrong. In hindsight, it makes sense that she would. As she recounts in her introduction, Cole grew up in the ’90s and early 2000s, when the internet was a place where she “debated scripture with middle-aged theologians, befriended queer atheists, shared poetry and photography and bottomless pages of writing with people I knew only by their screen names.”
For Cole and her fellow cybernauts, the internet was vast, unexplored space, limited only by one’s imagination. The internet even challenged one’s sense of personhood, becoming more real than the “meatspace” of the tangible world.
No wonder Cole embraces the freedom of sexual expression that both Big Tech and politicians seem to be doing their best to corral these days. Her book carefully documents, in an entertaining, non-academic way, how sex spurred innovation online, helping to create, popularize, and advance everything from teleconferencing and webcams to browser cookies and image digitization.
For Cole, the internet has been both a force for the positive and the nefarious. She illustrates the former with tales like that of Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, a transgender nun who took over a bulletin board system in 1990 known as the AIDS Global Information Service, or AEGIS, and turned it into a lifesaving database about the disease at a time when the subject was taboo.
The negative is exemplified by the “Girls Do Porn” controversy, in which young models were coerced into having sex for the camera, with the videos spread across the internet. Cole’s depiction of the harm caused by such “image-based sexual abuse” is chilling. In 2017, Cole was the first journalist to report on “deepfakes,” which initially involved ripping off the faces of celebs and grafting them onto video of porn performers in action.
The story went viral, spawning concern about the possible use of the technology in local politics and global affairs. Mainly, deepfakes are a tool for online misogynists, who steal the work of actors and porn stars and sometimes harass women in public and private life. Wisely, however, Cole realizes that there is “no high-tech solution to deepfakes,” adding, “We can’t code our way out of social issues.”
Freedom, Then Backlash
A recurring theme of Cole’s book is this cycle of the expansion of speech online, followed by cynical forces fanning the flames of moral panic, leading inevitably to censorship.
As a prime example, Cole cites a July 1995 Time magazine cover featuring the face of a wide-eyed, horrified child, his face blue from the glow of a computer screen, with the blaring headline, “CYBERPORN. EXCLUSIVE: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids—and free speech.”
The Time piece was based on a single crackpot study by a computer science student named Martin Rimm. Published in the Georgetown Law Journal, Rimm’s article reported that “a shocking 83.5 percent of all images” on the then-popular internet posting system, Usenet, were pornographic, including “pedophilia and bestiality,” ready to be viewed by the nation’s children.
The study was debunked soon enough, but the Time cover story was entered into the Congressional Record, and it helped pass the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which made it a criminal offense to display online “in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age” anything considered to be “patently offensive” or “indecent.”
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law’s censorship provisions, leaving intact CDA’s Section 230, which generally holds interactive websites harmless for their users’ posts. Congress amended Section 230 in 2018 with a law largely known as FOSTA/SESTA, using Backpage as a stalking horse to secure its passage.
FOSTA/SESTA made an exception to Section 230 for sex trafficking in civil and state law, while effectively banning adult ads, including anything that might even resemble an ad for consensual adult sex work. The law was never used against Backpage, which the feds seized in 2018, charging its former owners and execs with violations of the U.S. Travel Act.
Cole notes that the law caused widespread self-censorship of “sexual speech” online and has been “devastating for many marginalized communities.”
The Sex Police
Of course, there’s nothing new about censorship in the U.S., and Cole rightly treats the federal government’s pursuit of Backpage as part of a recurring war on sexual freedom. Unlike some other writers, she does not parrot the government’s anti-Backpage propaganda.
Cole writes that in 2004, “two anti-establishment newspapermen named Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin launched a Craigslist competitor called Backpage.” Lacey and Larkin’s “main focus at the time was their media conglomerate of local alt-weeklies called the New Times,” which merged with the Village Voice in 2005 to become Village Voice Media.
Along with ads for “a job, a house, or a bike,” Backpage, like Craigslist, included legal adult classifieds for massage, escorts, dating, etc. In the past, such adult advertising could be found in most alternative weeklies, even in the Yellow Pages and some dailies. Its move to the internet gave state Attorneys General and other ambitious pols a new target. Under the guise of combatting “sex trafficking,” the sex police took aim first at Craigslist’s adult services section. When Craigslist closed that section in 2010, the scolds moved on to Backpage, demanding the same.
Backpage held out for the better part of a decade, becoming the scourge of demagogic blowhards like Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Vice President Kamala Harris in her former roles as California AG, then U.S. Senator. Backpage consistently won in federal and state courts, which found the site’s publication of adult content protected by both Section 230 and the First Amendment.
Cole does not mention Harris’ arrests of Lacey and Larkin in 2016, and she does not go into the current status of the criminal case against Lacey, Larkin and four others. But that’s understandable. She’d need to write another book to tackle the Backpage story in full.
Cole acknowledges Backpage’s extensive cooperation with law enforcement, and Lacey and Larkin’s genuine desire to stop the misuse of the site by others. She writes that Backpage “hired a former federal prosecutor to help make the site watertight against such abuses” and reported ads with “suspected minors” to the authorities.
Cole draws on the work of Reason senior editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown to show that the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice knew “the many trafficking accusations levied against Backpage were a lie.” Backpage’s demise and the passage of FOSTA/SESTA robbed law enforcement of a valuable tool, writes Cole, “Backpage, after all was proactively helping law enforcement locate missing young people” and survivors of trafficking.
Adult classifieds migrated to sites overseas, which do not answer U.S. subpoenas or cooperate with American law enforcement. Thus, endangered women and children are less likely to be rescued, and their exploiters are less likely to be brought to justice.
“The things that affect the most marginalized people online inevitably affect everyone,” Cole observes.
Backpage, of course, is just one of many controversies and subjects that Cole tackles in her book. The sections dealing with haptics and virtual reality are eye-opening, for instance. But her primary message is one that resonates: sexual freedom online is increasingly endangered by corporate and political forces.
“[S]ex has shaped the internet into what it is today—although those in power would prefer that it be erased from the internet altogether,” Cole warns.
“This is a history of control: how we had it, grappled for it, lost it, and how we can learn from the past to get it back.”
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