Think about the tools you use for work, and then imagine a legal change on the other side of the world could take them out of your hands.
Sex workers fear that could happen in Australia if a contentious US bill becomes law. It’s aimed at making websites liable if they’re used to facilitate “sex trafficking”.
Like every profession, sex work is increasingly online, which means it often occurs on American web platforms.
Critics say the bill, which has now been sent for President Donald Trump’s signature, could upend that by making it risky for American websites to host any sex work-related content even though such work is permitted in many Australian states.
Looking forward to the upcoming #FOSTA–#SESTA vote on the Senate floor. Passing this important piece of legislation will bring us one step closer to ending sex trafficking online & restoring safety in our communities.
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) March 20, 2018
Its supporters argue it will combat illegal sex trafficking, but groups that serve trafficking survivors like The Freedom Network as well as the US Department of Justice say it could push bad actors offline and make them harder to prosecute.
The impact is already being felt. After the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) passed Congress, for example, Craigslist announced it was taking its “personals” section offline.
“We can’t take such risk without jeopardising all our other services,” it said.
In March, Reddit told users it was banning the solicitation or facilitation of “paid services involving physical sexual contact” and reportedly got rid of a number of subreddits where sex work was discussed.
Australian sex workers are becoming even more cyber-savvy in response, building their own networks and encrypting emails.
Which tools will be affected?
The sex work community uses American internet platforms to advertise, talk to clients and share safety information.
Estelle Lucas, an Australian sex worker and activist, said she uses sites like Twitter, Instagram and Gmail.
These tools allow her to screen customers, as well as choose when to work and in what circumstances.
Lola Hunt, a sex worker and technologist based in Melbourne, communicates on “every social platform from Twitter to Whatsapp”.
“Whether it’s to advertise or as a way to stay safe and connected to other members of the community. They are absolutely essential,” she wrote in an email.
Still, the impact of the bill in Australia is still largely unknown — particularly, a lack of clarity about how it will be enforced.
File-sharing site Google Drive and video chat service Skype already ban sexually explicit or nude content, and there are concerns such rules could expand or become more strongly policed if the bill becomes law.
John Scott, a law professor at the Queensland University of Technology, said there are unlikely to be immediate, significant impacts within Australia, but he’s concerned the US law could hurt the industry’s ability to self-regulate.
“Online platforms allow sex workers to work independently of third parties such as pimps, and the online environment is largely seen as safer than street-based work,” he said.
Jules Kim, CEO of the Scarlet Alliance, which represents Australian sex workers, said these digital platforms are a practical tool of negotiation, as well as a tool for safety.
Who will be affected?
For those workers that are familiar with the internet, work-arounds will be inconvenient but not impossible.
However, Ms Lucas said she was concerned for more vulnerable sex workers who might have less time and resources to invest in their online safety.
US journalist Melissa Gira Grant has reported concerns in America that the inability to place online ads could push people, especially LGBTQI and other minorities, into more dangerous situations.
“[The bill] will send these women back to the abusive managers, cop violence, rape, and monotonous misery of street work,” Caty Simon, a harm reduction activist and sex worker in Western Massachusetts, told her.
Sex Workers Outreach Project NSW (SWOP NSW) CEO Cameron Cox, who has been a sex worker for 40 years, said the internet has provided flexibility and community, which he now fears could now be taken away.
It’s not simply that client communication may be inaccessible; there are also online forums, group messages and email lists where health and safety information about bad clients is shared.
“That sort of communication that was built up over a long, long time so we can keep ourselves safe and healthy is suddenly taken away from us,” he said.
Ultimately, Ms Lucas warned the laws might not only impact sites that are explicitly focused on sex work.
What about American dating apps, for example, if there were suspicions that ads had moved there?
Learning web safety
To prepare for the bill’s potential impact, advocacy groups like SWOP NSW and the Scarlet Alliance have held information sessions, teaching locals about encryption and even cryptocurrency.
On classifieds sites like Backpage, Mr Cox pointed out, you couldn’t use most major credit cards to buy advertising, but new technologies like bitcoin were a solution.
“Younger sex workers have been teaching older sex workers how to manoeuvre their way around cryptocurrencies,” he said.An online community of sex workers is also helping to ensure everyone’s technology knowledge is up-to-date.
Ms Lucas, for example, created a document to help colleagues get their digital assets in order.
She explained how workers on Twitter are backing up accounts and cleaning out direct messages.
Sex workers are also turning to encrypted email services like ProtonMail, but another option is to control the platform outright.
Ms Hunt is part of a group of developers called Assembly Four. They have begun work on a new social platform called Switter, which is purpose-built for sex workers.
“Switter came about when we kept hearing through our network that platforms were beginning to remove content without warning, shadowban our accounts or outright suspend our accounts,” she wrote.
Ms Kim said the policing of sex work in physical spaces had simply moved online.
“We have these systems set up for our safety, and when they get taken away from us, that leaves us vulnerable,” she said.
When approached for comment, Google pointed to a statement from its trade organisation, the Internet Association, which said it was committed to ending trafficking online.