FOSTA/SESTA and Libraries

Tumblr and Facebook’s decisions to censor and remove any adult or erotic material on their platforms has set the internet atwitter (pun intended). There were, of course, thinkpieces lauding or decrying Facebook and Tumblr’s actions based on political perspective, bits of analysis and mockery of Tumblr’s misunderstanding of their audience. There was also satire over their mishandling of the filter, which flagged the company’s own announcement post as adult content that would soon be removed.

There were also mournful pieces, especially by LGBTQ+ individuals who found their own identities on Tumblr and Facebook. It is a ban and a filter that will likely have harmful consequences—it is only a matter of time before these new regulations go after a minoritized individual.

Tumblr and Facebook were perhaps being a bit too coy here—they should have just said the reason for their decision was the fact that FOSTA/SESTA would be implemented in January of 2019.

Although there has been some discussion of this in the LIS world—there was this moving piece by Ayoola White at Hack Library School that looked at how SESTA/FOSTA would affect sex workers and what we as library professionals should do—but there has not been enough, especially considering the ways that the new law could affect librarians, libraries, and the work we do—especially the principals of Intellectual Freedom that the ALA and the Office of Intellectual Freedom supports.

A quick recap—SESTA/FOSTA (the acronyms for Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) is a law that was passed with high support from both the House and the Senate in this past March and April and signed into law by President Trump on April 11th. It alters the Communication Decency Act of 1996, specifically Section 230. Section 230, which used to protect websites and platforms from statements that were made on them. It does this by treating internet companies like libraries.

Libraries are not responsible for the items on the shelf—a book might contain something immoral, illegal, or pornographic, but a library is not responsible for it, though it can and should take steps to stop it—in this metaphor, removing an offending post from a site. For example, Twitter is not responsible for someone using their platform for a bomb threat or trying to find clients for sex work. (If you’re interested in an in-depth review check out this bit by Vox, or a longer analysis by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy [PDF link]).

However, the way SESTA/FOSTA is written, as Mary Graw Leary of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy points out, could also make libraries themselves vulnerable. To quote from Section 230 (on which more below) if any patron uses their “interactive computer service…specifically a service or system that provides access to the Internet and such systems operated or services offered by libraries or educational institutions” for illegal activities such as soliciting sex, distributing pornography or illegal content, they can now be held responsible.

Indeed, the same group that helped push though the SESTA/FOSTA law—the National Center on Sexual Exploitation—has previously targeted the American Library Association in their annual “dirty dozen” list of organizations that “perpetuate sexual exploitation.” for making libraries into “a XXX space that fosters child sexual abuse.” The same group is also responsible for the more than two dozen wave of states declaring that pornography is a public health crisis. The ALA is likely to make another appearance this year, pointing to just how closely librarians should be paying attention to SESTA/FOSTA.

The target of SESTA/FOSTA was sex workers, who are distinct from victims of sexual trafficking and refuse to be lumped into the same category. These individuals are very often (and perhaps too often) the target of these sweeping laws, but in this case, they may be the canary in the coal mine.

The first groups of websites to shut down because of this law were websites that aided sex workers or websites that sex workers used as support groups and tools for vetting clients. But, as we can see with the Tumblr and Facebook, the law touches everyone, equally.

And it may be coming to a library near you.


This was a guest post by guest writer Brian Watson, Indiana University.

About Brian:

I am a historian of the book and sexuality, an  archivist, and a researcher. I have especial interest in the history of privacy, sexual categories, obscene/pornographic literature, intersectionality and queer theory.

I started undergrad at Keene State College, a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire, where I grew up. I originally wanted to be a teacher but quickly moved to focusing on academia. I received M.A. in History & Culture from Drew University, where I focused on the history of the book and obscenity censorship. I am currently pursuing a MLIS in Archives and Digital Humanities at Indiana University Bloomington.

My first book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad, resulted in an appearance on Conan O’Brien and elsewhere.  Currently, I work as a pre-professional assistant at Scholarly Communications at IUB, focusing on Open Access, and I am a pre-professional archivist at the Kinsey Institute. I am researching my next book, which is on the historiography of porn studies between the end of WWII and the start of the Reagan and Thatcher ‘rebellions.’ I have a number of forthcoming book chapters in the Edinburgh History of Reading, Literature’s Kinkiest Corners and elsewhere.

I am also a volunteer moderator for the world’s largest academic history forum, AskHistorians, and I am the co-host and editor of The AskHistorians Podcast.

Featured image courtesy of The White House

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