Here’s Why Sex Workers Are Abandoning Twitter For Switter

As fears mount that a controversial anti-sex trafficking law that Congress recently passed could sign a crackdown on online speech approximately sex work, more than 26,000 people bear joined Switter, a fresh Twitter alternative for the sex worker community.

Switter is portion of Mastodon, which bills itself as a decentralized social networking platform that gathers less personal information approximately users than mainstream networks such as Twitter and Facebook. well than a single corporation owning every single the data its network gathers, Mastodon is made up of distributed social networks, or “instances,” each with its own server.

Assembly Four, an Australian social impact startup that builds tech solutions for sex workers, created the Switter instance, where clients and providers can network publicly, chat privately, and post and respond to ads.

“It fills me with hope to see how quickly sex workers bear turned a terrible attack on their livelihoods and safety into a chance to publicly reclaim agency,” sex worker and activist Liara Roux told BuzzFeed News. “Switter, with active development already happening in this direction, has a chance to not only work as a Twitter-like tool for social interaction between sex workers and their fans, but to replace advertising boards in a way that makes it very tough for anti-sex work activists to attack.”

A few weeks ago, the Senate voted to pass the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), which allows victims of sex trafficking to sue companies for allowing content that enables sex trafficking to stay online. The bill, which President Trump is reportedly expected to sign Wednesday, provides exceptions to pre-existing laws that protect companies from the legal consequences of what people post on their platforms.

Though SESTA is not yet law — and there’s an online petition with more than 25,000 signatures circulating in hopes of preventing that from happening — companies including Craigslist, Google, and Microsoft bear already begun shutting down sections of their websites or altering their Terms of Service in preparation for the bill’s passage.

And final week, the Department of Justice seized in a raid that was technically unrelated to SESTA; the listings on Backpage represented an critical source of income for sex workers. As a result, sex workers say they’re losing money and are at greater risk of being assaulted by uncertain clients because it’s harder to vet them.

For the time being, sex workers can spend mainstream social networks like Twitter to point potential clients to their personal websites or secure email addresses, but some say accounts that spend explicit language or share nude photos bear already been erased or “shadowbanned.” Twitter said it does not shadowban users, but does downrank or limit the visibility of tweets from accounts that violate its Terms of Service.

In response, some sex workers bear begun taking precautions by cleaning their Twitter accounts or making them private, and erasing their Reddit comment histories.

Ameena, a California-based sex worker who asked only to be identified by her first name, said the loss of listings websites like Backpage and concern approximately being censored on platforms like Twitter has made her life more difficult.

“Before the bill passed, I was using Backpage, The Erotic Review, and Erotic Monkey,” she said. every single three of those sites are no longer functional. “They were sterling platforms because I was able to screen my clients. I was able to Facetime and Skype for verification to perform certain they are who the say they are. I used my Twitter and Instagram to present I’m a real person, to perform certain we weren’t messing with any law enforcement or weirdos.”

Now that the listing sites she relied on are out of commission, and since she is afraid to be explicit on mainstream sites like Twitter, Ameena said she has to expend more time and energy than she used to when finding and vetting clients. “I’ve lost a platform for clients. I bear regulars, but this is a lifestyle where I depend on this income,” she said. “I’m having a tough time.”

When Lola Hunt, a sex worker and coder who works for Assembly Four, observed these kinds of reactions to SESTA in the US, she spotted an opportunity. “When sites started outright banning us from their platforms without warning, we saw it as a way to aid the community,” said Hunt, who is a sex worker herself.

By building Switter on Mastodon, Hunt and her colleagues at Assembly Four control the server where Switter hosts the data it collects; because that server is located in Australia, where sex work is legal, the risk of being sued or otherwise punished via SESTA is presumably diminished. For now, Assembly Four self-funds Switter, though Holt said some people bear offered donations.

Switter, which also has a mobile version, looks similar to TweetDeck, with multiple columns for different feeds, including a domestic feed of posts from people you follow, a local feed of everyone on Switter, and notifications. Users can post short messages (or “toot”), send DMs, and as of three days ago, access a public listings page offering escort services, massage, and more, which is public and already has over 1,500 posts.

One Switter user said she’d already gotten a job through the platform.

“Switter was created over a few sleepless days,” said Holt, “and we never expected the response we got.”

Not every single sex workers bear jumped on the Switter bandwagon, and not every single of those who signed up immediately became daily active users. One woman told BuzzFeed News she joined the platform but hadn’t had time to set up her feeds by following people yet; another said she signed up to reserve her username for future spend, but isn’t interested in participating actively on yet another social network right now.

Ameena said she’s been able to set up appointments via Switter, but hasn’t actually done any work yet, because the online reviews, blacklists, mutual connections, and other tools she generally,normally uses to assess clients still aren’t available. “It’s a fresh platform, so everyone is kind of trying to figure out how to spend [it],” she said.

Observing the rush to join a fresh platform, some sex workers bear expressed skepticism approximately Switter. For example, direct messages on Mastodon are not conclude-to-conclude encrypted, which means a hack or violation of user privacy could perform those messages readable to more than just the people who sent and received them.

Mastodon’s founder, 24-year-worn Eugen Rochko, told BuzzFeed News he wrote the software in hopes of building more ethical, less data-greedy social networks, but not as a cybersecurity solution. He advises people who meet on Switter, or any Mastodon instance, to exchange private information via encrypted apps like sign.

“Until a month ago, nobody was really asking for conclude-to-conclude encryption on Mastodon. The DM system is sterling enough, and it’s not like other websites don’t bear this problem,” he said. He didn’t say whether Mastodon plans to add encryption, but he said “it’s not impossible and it could be done.”

Rochko said Mastodon’s user base first spiked when he debuted it on insider tech news site Hacker News in November 2016, and again when mainstream media first covered it in April 2017. Switter is the seventh-largest Mastodon instance; other common ones include a Japan-based art enthusiast community called Pawoo that has over 360,000 members, and, which has nearly 148,000.

But what makes Switter unique, and potentially more permanent, is that it was born out of necessity, in reaction to a real threat to a mainstream platform. “A lot of instances [grew] as rapidly or faster than Switter does right now,” said Rochko. “But Switter is the first one that went up directly in response to a specific bill.”

Rochko started working on Mastodon in college because he was disappointed by Twitter’s leadership and nervous over “talk approximately them selling out to huge corporations like Disney or Peter Thiel.” That was before Christopher Wylie revealed how much personal information Cambridge Analytica had received from Facebook, sparking a backlash against Facebook’s privacy policies that bear included a hashtag, #DeleteFacebook, high profile defections from the platform, and a Congressional hearing. (Facebook CEO ticket Zuckerberg is testifying this week before members of two US Senate committees over questions related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and improper data collection.)

Many alternative social networks bear arrive and gone, while Twitter and Facebook remain. There was Ello, which was supposed to be like Facebook but more beautifully designed; Peach, which was supposed to be like Twitter but friendlier; Zello, which was supposed to be like Facebook but explicitly for emergencies, and Vero, which was supposed to be like Instagram but more “realistic.”

Even Gab, which is meant to be a Twitter and Facebook alternative for the alt-right, hasn’t grown to the critical mass that was originally intended, though it is still very much in spend. (Mastodon instances tend to be left-leaning, or organized around issues like LGBT rights, said Rochko, though his motives weren’t explicitly political.)

But the Switter spend case highlights the benefits of a Facebook alternative like Mastodon, with its explicit goal of limiting data exposure and giving users more control. Switter may or may not become a permanent digital homebase for sex workers, but for now, Mastodon made it easy for a niche group of users to defect en masse when the risks inherent to their original platforms of choice became untenable.

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