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21 Jul 2019 10:41
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  •   Home > News > International

    What happened after Aussie sex workers were kicked off American websites?

    What happens when your community is no longer welcome on the internet? For Australian sex workers, that's been the reality for almost one year — and some are taking matters into their own hands.

    What happens when your community is no longer welcome on the internet? For Australian sex workers, that's been the reality for just over one year.

    In mid-2018, a package of American laws aimed at combatting sex trafficking were signed into law by President Donald Trump.

    The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) made online platforms like Facebook and Google liable for any content that advertised sex work, even consensual work.

    At the time, the adult industry in Australia warned they would be pushed offline — unable to access the tools they used for employment and safety — despite some forms of sex work being legal here, depending on your state or territory.

    And now it can seem like two parallel internets have formed: one ostensibly "free" of sex work, and another, hand-built in the margins by workers now excluded from mainstream platforms.

    This homespun alternative presents its own challenges, as the local adult industry interacts with banks and the technology start-up scene.

    "Regardless of your intersection of identities, as a sex worker, you're very far on the outside of what's considered to be societally acceptable," said Gala Vanting, president of the national sex workers association, the Scarlet Alliance.

    What was lost

    When asked what impact legal changes in the United States have had on Australian sex workers, many cite the demise of Backpage as a key milestone.

    A controversial classifieds website where sex work was advertised, and a long-time target of US lawmakers, Backpage was taken over by the FBI in April 2018.

    Several people involved were accused of facilitating sex work, sometimes involving minors, and money laundering, among other charges.

    Dean Lim, a sex worker based in Melbourne, said the FOSTA laws had a significant impact on his work, which often used Backpage as a contact point — or Craigslist, which also took its personals page offline.

    He was shocked by the repercussions a legal change on the other side of the world could have on his business.

    "Pre … FOSTA, I would have ads online, and the majority of my clientele would contact me via text message or phone calls," said Mr Lim, who is also the co-host of Behind Closed Doors on 3CR.

    "Post … FOSTA, all the connections stopped. It was that noticeable."

    Without such sites, sex workers might need to find new ways to interact with clients, sometimes in ways that can be less safe, Ms Vanting pointed out, such as street-based sex work. This has especially significant consequences for the more vulnerable sex workers.

    "In Australia, that is trans workers, that is workers of colour. It's gender-queer, non-binary," she said.

    Estelle Lucas, a private escort in Melbourne, said the changes online have also made it hard for peer-to-peer education to take place.

    Many sex workers previously used digital networking sites to share tools and safety information with each other.

    "I can't go into too much detail of how sex workers manage their safety within their own spaces. That's only for sex workers," she said.

    "But I can tell you very confidently that those spaces have been jeopardised because of these laws."

    Build your own, for your own

    In the wake of FOSTA, there has been a growing focus on sex worker-led technology companies, set up to address the workers' own needs.

    Ms Lucas started Red Cloud to provide colleagues with an alternative web hosting company, so they wouldn't be reliant on American companies.

    There is also the website Red Files, which is an online space where sex workers can connect with each other and relevant services.

    Ms Lucas said it can at times be difficult to explain why and how sex workers should make themselves "FOSTA-proof".

    "I'm there for you and 100 per cent there for you. I will always fight for your website. They will not," she said, referring to mainstream hosting providers.

    Since FOSTA was passed into law, Lola Hunt and Eliza Sorensen, based in Melbourne, have launched several technology platforms serving sex workers through their company, Assembly Four.

    One is Switter, a social media network for sex workers; another is a paid advertising platform called Tryst Link. Neither are hosted in the US, to avoid FOSTA exposure.

    However, the company still comes up against road blocks: the Assembly Four team has been "completely bootstrapping" its work, Ms Sorensen said, because they haven't yet been able to receive venture capital funding.

    "Everyone we've spoken to really believes in what we're doing," Ms Sorensen explained.

    "But because the type of [venture capital firm] they're working for either had super money or banking money, they can't take on this type of high-risk ... or what they deem to be high-risk ... ventures."

    There is also the difficulty of getting merchant facilities from banks or the means to accept payments, which Ms Sorensen said has been a "nightmare".

    Of course, it can be challenging for sex worker-led companies to enter typical start-up spaces.

    "For me, the biggest problem that I've encountered with 'whoreaphobia' in tech is that tech workers believe that they can solve sex worker problems without including sex workers," Ms Vanting said.

    "We're not particularly keen on handing over or bringing in someone else who doesn't understand the industry," Ms Sorensen added.

    American rules for the rest of us

    From the beginning, the internet allowed all kinds of communities to find friendly spaces to gather online — often in ways they couldn't in the physical world.

    After FOSTA, waking up to find those spaces closed down or closed off has become a possibility for certain minority or vulnerable groups.

    "We've reached a point now where the influence of those [technology] platforms and their political context in the United States has become a pretty unwieldy problem," Ms Vanting said.

    "I feel like this was such a good example of the way that the United States is able to export its current conservatism or its current xenophobia [via the power of its technology companies]."

    In some ways, the industry also feels betrayed by the companies involved.

    In a blockbuster 2018 New York Times story about the internal drama at Facebook that followed a series of privacy scandals, it was suggested that Facebook helped pass FOSTA in the hope that it "would help repair relations on both sides of the aisle".

    Facebook disputed this characterisation of events, stating: "[Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg] championed this legislation because she believed it was the right thing to do, and that tech companies need to be more open to content regulation where it can prevent real world harm."

    One year later, Mr Lim said that an unexpected, positive result of the situation is that the community has banded together, online and off.

    "It's challenging times, but people are still thriving and using technology, [the] internet, to make things work," he said.


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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