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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. 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. 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. 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". 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.
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. 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.
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. Ultimately, Ms Lucas warned the laws might not only impact sites that are explicitly focused on sex work. 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. An online community of sex workers is also helping to ensure everyone's technology knowledge is up-to-date.
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.
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. If you have inside knowledge of a topic in the news, contact the ABC. ABC teams share the story behind the story and insights into the making of digital, TV and radio content. Where to find a share house to rent? Websites for casual sex?
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