Switter, a social media site set up in 2018 by Assembly Four, an Australian collective of sex workers and technology experts, has shut down. Switter enabled sex workers to make connections, share information around safety and screen clients but the site could no longer be managed in a way that would keep the almost half a million global users safe as a result of online safety laws in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.
Harmful “anti-trafficking” laws
Following the passage of the harmful Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Fight Online Sex Traffickers Act laws in the U.S. in 2018, websites such as Backpage where sex workers could safely advertise and screen clients were shut down. The Guardian reports that Switter was set up in response to this legislation that purported to be aimed at addressing sex trafficking. In reality SESTA/FOSTA is rarely used as a U.S. government report found in 2021, while causing serious harm to sex workers’ safety and livelihoods, forcing them into situations where the risk of trafficking and exploitation increases.
Assembly Four’s statement on their decision to shut down Switter said:
The recent anti-sex work and anti-LGBTQIA+ legislative changes not only in Australia, but in the UK, US and other jurisdictions have made it impossible for us to appropriately and ethically maintain compliance over 420,690+ users.
In November 2021, Freedom United made a submission to the Australian government’s consultation on Australia’s Draft Online Safety (Basic Online Safety Expectations) setting out our concerns around this legislation. We believe that online content depicting abuses of human trafficking victims should be removed and that traffickers be held accountable, however these cases are different from adult, consensual sex work and it remains unclear how the government will differentiate between actual cases of trafficking and false or misleading reports by end-users.
This distinction is essential in order to help trafficking victims and ensure sex workers can communicate with each other in order to work safely online — a crucial harm reduction strategy.
Why shutting down online spaces puts sex workers at risk
Legislation that forces platforms like Switter to shut down only harms sex workers and puts them at greater risk of trafficking. Traffickers take advantage of marginalized people, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, often by false promises of work. Making it more difficult for sex workers to survive economically only leads to further marginalization, placing them at greater risk of exploitation.