Update: FOSTA Passes, 97-2, in Senate Vote

Updated at 1:20 p.m. PT: The final vote has been take in the U.S. Senate on the FOSTA/SESTA bill, which passed 97-2. The two "nay" votes were from Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The FOSTA/SESTA bill, purportedly aimed at curbing online sex trafficking, is expected to pass the United States Senate by an overwhelming margin within hours, after the Senate voted Monday on “cloture” for the bill, passing that motion with 94 votes in favor against only two “nays.” 

Cloture is the procedural move in the Senate that prevents a bill from being blocked by a filibuster, and limits the amount of time that the bill can be debated on the Senate floor. Once the Senate votes in favor of cloture, passage of a bill is generally considered a done deal.

The only two senators to vote against cloture on the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” were Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon.

When the bill passed the House in February, Wyden signaled his opposition to the bill, saying, “History shows that politicians have been remarkably bad at solving technological problems.”

“The failure to understand the technological side effects of this bill—specifically that it will become harder to expose sex-traffickers, while hamstringing innovation—will be something that this Congress will regret,” Wyden said.

Wyden’s concerns echo the objections to the bill raised by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a longstanding online civil liberties group, which posted a statement last week saying that the bill—which as received wide backing from Hollywood studios and large technology firms—is actually designed to let those big companies to “filter” content on the internet to advance their own commercial interests.

“When Hollywood and entrenched tech interests suddenly take a new interest in the problem of sex trafficking, it’s fair to wonder why. After all, an Internet subject to corporate filters will make it harder, not easier, to hunt down and prosecute sex traffickers,” the EFF posting stated.

In the guise of rooting out content that promotes sex-trafficking, EFF and the bill’s other critics fear, tech companies will create algorithms and artificial intelligence “bots” to find any content that Hollywood studios and the tech companies do not themselves control.

Under current law, online sites have a “safe harbor” against being held liable for copyright violations by users of their platforms. The FOSTA/SESTA bill would end that safe harbor, effectively requiring internet providers and sites to police their own content using AI and algorithms, simply because monitoring massive amounts of content by human beings would quickly become too unwieldy to be effective.

“The MPAA has cynically been using the fact that there are fake drugs and sex trafficking on the internet for nearly decade to push for undermining the core aspects of the internet,” wrote the technology blog TechDirt last week. “They don't give a shit that none of this will stop sex trafficking (or that it will actually make life more difficult for victims of sex trafficking). The goal, from the beginning was to hamstring the internet, and return Hollywood to what it feels is its rightful place as the gatekeeper for all culture.”

Not only could the use of “bots” be used to filter the internet in favor of large, corporate interests—the bots themselves would likely prove ineffective in finding illegal sex trafficking, and contribute to restricting speech online.

“It’s unlikely that an automated filter will be able to determine the nuanced difference between actual online sex-trafficking and a discussion about sex-trafficking,” the EFF statement said. “Knocking down safe harbors will lead to an over-reliance on flawed filters, which can easily silence the wrong people.”