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Legislators Want To Open Up Wiretap Laws To Target Sex Workers And Their Customers

Under the guise of fighting sex trafficking, legislators have been offering up a slew of bills that will make things much worse for plenty of people not involved in this heinous crime. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, who is the go-to expert on all sorts of government abuse done in the name of sex-trafficked children, has tallied up the current stack of legislative paperwork floating around the halls of Congress. Spoiler alert: it's a lot.

So far this year, federal lawmakers have introduced more than 30 bills related to "sex trafficking," which many in government now define to mean all prostitution. This week alone brought three new efforts. And following the familiar pattern of the drug war, these measures mostly focus on giving federal law enforcement more "tools" to find, prosecute, and punish people for actions only tangentially, if at all, connected to causing harm.

Currently, the forerunner for "worst" is one that makes a mockery of federal wiretap statutes. The laws governing government eavesdropping have been modified over the years with an eye on protecting something even more sacrosanct than someone's home: someone's private conversations. Wiretaps are only supposed to be used for felonies -- dangerous, possibly life-threatening criminal activities. They're supposed to be issued only when law enforcement has exhausted all other options and subjected to strict oversight to prevent their abuse. (Note: what's supposed to happen and what actually happens are two very different things.)

What they're not supposed to be used for is small-time stuff -- misdemeanors and other low-level, non-dangerous crimes. But that's exactly what legislators are hoping to do: expand wiretap authority to cover the consensual exchange of money for services.

One such measure would expand state and local government authority "to seek wiretap warrants in sexual exploitation and prostitution cases" (emphasis mine) and mandate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Justice conduct a "study on the long-term physical and psychological effects of the commercial sex trade." It would also give the Department of Homeland Security a mandate to develop protocols "for implementation across federal, state, and local law enforcement" on how to screen people "suspected of engaging in commercial sex acts" for the possibility that they have been trafficked. The screening process would also be applied to people suspected of working in violation of any labor regulations, including occupational licensing rules.

Combine this new authority with government officials' natural tendency to name-and-shame anyone involved with consensual sex work and you've got a whole can of wiretapped worms just waiting to be exploited for maximum public damage. Add to that the underlying assertion that sex work is some sort of illness that must be studied by the CDC and, presumably, "remedied" by even more ridiculous, harmful legislation.

And no one really wants to see the DHS getting involved in local vice cases. The DHS has already proven it knows almost nothing about securing the homeland. Asking it to dip into prostitution busts is basically asking for widespread rights violations, especially if this activity takes places in the so-called "Constitution-Free Zone," which covers areas where a large majority of the US population resides.

Also included: more federal targeting of customers and a potential to add "hate crime" sentencing enhancements to the crime of buying sex. Brown points out the bill orders the DOJ to view buying sex as a "form of gender-based violence."

And there's more, which hardly seems possible. Prostitutes could possibly be legally considered "criminal street gang members" under proposed legislation. And some bills would allow the government to start seizing personal property if fines are not paid.

The named target is sex trafficking and the supposed beneficiaries would be children, who are kidnapped and exploited all the damn time according to stats made up out of thin air. But the real targets will be the oldest profession, which includes plenty of un-exploited sex workers voluntarily providing services to paying customers. But the end result will be a spectacular amount of collateral damage -- and that's not just limited to customers having their conversations intercepted or being hit with hate crime enhancements. The proposed legislation would also wreak havoc on the internet.

Grassley's bill cobbles together a host of changes that give federal prosecuting agencies more power. Among other things, it would create a federal mandate to fight "sextortion" (without defining what this means); ask the quasi-governmental National Center for Missing and Exploited to assist the government in identifying "misleading domain names" and "misleading words or digital images on the Internet"; and more than quadruple annual appropriations for grants related to these activities.

Starting with this premise, those caught up in these supposed anti-sex trafficking efforts will find themselves in the position of proving a negative. If the government decides you're looking for child porn or exploited children (or offering either of these) but can't find images or terminology affirming this hunch, it can still go after you for being "misleading."

These bills may namecheck sex trafficking and carry the veneer of honest law enforcement work, but underneath every one of them lies the Puritanical notion that buying and selling sex is immoral and must be punished not by God, but by the government itself.

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