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Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.

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Three days ago, Eros-Guide’s call center in Youngsville, North Carolina, was raided by the Department of Homeland Security. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM, a dozen black government vehicles converged on parent company Bolma Star Service’s office and data center, beginning a search and seizure operation that would last into the night. They confiscated computers, documents, and servers. The search warrant is sealed in federal court, with officials offering no comment on the investigation besides the fact that it is an active investigation. All DHS agents will say is that they are often assigned to crossborder cases involving money laundering, cybercrime, and human trafficking. So we have no idea what their probable cause even is. No arrests have been made yet, or charges filed. But collectively, we sex workers shudder with that familiar fear: we’re witnessing yet another instance of an ominous multi-year pattern, from Craigslist to MyRedBook to Rentboy to Backpage, of our advertising platforms being raided or pressured out of existence.

Once again, some of us are left in desperate suspense, waiting to see if our business models are about to be disrupted; if we’re going to be left in economic turmoil. Sure, eros.com and the other Eros subsidiary sites are still up for the moment, but how secure are they to conduct business over now?

Over the past few years, Eros has required progressively more revealing ID checks in order to confirm advertisers are of age. Now those IDs, including those of migrant and undocumented sex workers, are in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. Sure, if they use this evidence at all, the feds will probably just focus on those of us they can construe as traffickers—sex workers who own incalls for the use of other sex workers, for example. There’s probably no reason for most Eros users to panic about this. Still, having your real name, address, and ID number in the hands of DHS is a nightmare scenario in a profession where our survival depends on our anonymity.

When it comes down to it, though, as many Eros workers pointed out on social media, they’re more worried about being homeless than about the government having that information.

The rest of us look on with empathy, knowing that any day, we could be next. We all try not to think about how tenuous and transitory our ways of doing business are so that we can go through our days without feeling the paralyzing economic terror hitting many of us now. But when something like this happens, it’s difficult to avoid that hard fact.

When Backpage caved to government pressure and shut down its adult ads earlier this year, some middle and upper class escorts felt immune. They felt that the higher prices they were charged for ads on Eros and Slixa meant they were paying for security. They acquiesced to the ID checks those services innovated, trading in their anonymity for the hope that now their advertising platforms couldn’t be accused of trafficking minors the way Backpage has been. (Not that the ID submissions weren’t foisted upon them as one of an array of very few options.) But now that Eros has been hit, our higher end counterparts must recognize that none of us are safe. No matter what security measures we take, no matter how many layers of privilege might mitigate our grey market or black market status, at any point, criminalization can strip us of all of them and leave us economically and legally exposed.

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WTF, Backpage?

by Caty Simon on January 13, 2017 · 14 comments

in News, Politics

A screenshot of Backpage’s New York City escorting page as of 1/12/2017.

We all knew it was coming. With California Attorney General Kamala Harris filing a second set of multiple charges of pimping and money laundering last month against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and with Ferrer and his shareholders’ Senate hearing coming up last Tuesday before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plus the trafficking hysteria-fueled media scrutiny Backpage had been under over the past couple of years—well, let’s just say that few of us were buying Backpage credits in bulk anymore. But most of us expected that the government would find some way to stop Backpage’s adult ads operation, however legally unlikely that might seem after years of efforts to do just that by law enforcement zealots. (After all, the California State Superior Court spanked Harris pretty hard verbally in last month’s decision on her first set of Backpage charges, reminding her that the Communications Decency Act specified that third party sites were not liable for their posters’ illegal content. And on Monday, the Supreme Court stated it would not hear an appeal on a similar Backpage case.)

But what actually ended up happening is that on Monday night, a few hours after the publication of a Senate report accusing Backpage of editing ads to minimize evidence of trafficking, Backpage execs decided to shutter their U.S. adult ads themselves as a free speech protest. Where the ads had once been, the site announces that they are “censored” by the government in a loud red font. Visitors are encouraged to speak out in support of the martyred site by using the hashtags #FREE SPEECH #BACKPAGE on social media.

That night, us sex workers collectively panicked, wondering how we would survive this month with no well-established national advertising site to garner low-end to middle-end escorting clients.

As usual, when powerful institutions decide to use the sex work debate for symbolic ammunition, it’s sex workers who suffer horrific real life consequences. Here, two competing neo-liberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.

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An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

It’s happening again.

I remember the drop in my stomach as my browser opened on the homepage of MyRedBook in 2014 and I saw the emblems of the FBI, DOJ, and the IRS occupying a page which used to host an escort ad, review, and forum website used by thousands of providers across the West Coast. It was at that moment when I realized what the stakes in the war on sex trafficking truly were. Two years after Prop 35 passed in California, broadening the definition of trafficker to anyone “who is supported in part or in whole from the earnings of a prostitute”, and four years after the multi-year battle against Craigslist resulted in its Adult section being taken down, it was clear: sex workers’ ability to advertise online was going to be taken out from under us.

At the time, I worked at St. James Infirmary providing healthcare services to current and former sex workers. Over the next several months, I witnessed people being flung into economic turmoil. A lot of the community talked to me about going back into the street or going there for the first time. Others tried to pack into strip clubs, where their money was split by management, or focus on porn—also under attack by the state through Prop 60. Some people successfully moved their business onto other more costly or exclusive advertising platforms. And some people left the business altogether, either to new forms of income or to try to exist on the scraps of government support available to the unemployed.

I saw the closure of MyRedBook increase stratification within the industry, widening the gap between those sex workers able to appeal to the more elite clientele of other websites and those who had to move onto the street and deal with the violence of being outside.

Eventually, Backpage, relatively unused in the Bay Area prior to the RedBook seizure, garnered enough web traffic that it became the website for those of us who want to work independently and inside, but don’t have the body, gender, or class presentation desired by the majority of clients looking at websites such as Eros, Slixa, and Seeking Arrangements. It is especially utilized by folks living outside urban metropolises, where other advertising platforms, if they exist, are largely unused. TS Blair, a friend of mine who works in the South, says:

As a transgender woman working in a small city, BackPage is the only resource for sex work outside of the street for so many bodies. You go on Eros, it’s exclusively white cis women on there. If BackPage shuts down, so many of us will have nowhere else to go.

And now, in the wake of Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer being arrested Thursday on felony pimping charges, what does the future hold for sex workers dependent on Backpage for survival? While some are already established on other sites and venues or are able to float on their savings for a while, many are left waiting to see if their only source of income will disappear, eliminated by law enforcement hell bent on “rescuing” them.

The specifics of if, when, and how Backpage will be stripped of its erotic services section are unclear. Unlike MyRedBook and, more recently, Rentboy, Backpage has not been seized as a company. The company that owns the website, Atlantische Bedrijven CV, is based in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legalized. Civil liberties experts agree that in the US, the Communications Decency Act protects online service providers from being held liable for third party posts, and Backpage’s legal counsel told the Guardian that the site intends to fight what it calls “frivolous prosecution.”

Still, there is currently no substantial information available on the future of the website, so all there is to do is wait. The political landscape seems unfavorable, especially considering this week’s news about Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Many of us question what comes next.

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A recent Renboy.com screenshot, before the raid.

A recent Rentboy.com screenshot, before the raid.

Tuesday morning, Homeland Security and Brooklyn police raided the offices of Rentboy.com, arresting its CEO and several current and former workers, seizing six bank accounts, and freezing the website in what the U.S. Department of Justice’s press release bragged was a raid on the “largest online male escort service.”

Coming right on the heels of Amnesty International’s controversial and much talked about decriminalization policy, the raid was a shock to many in the sex work world. Law enforcement agencies appear to be turning their eyes on sex work advertising services in North America, from the crackdowns on Backpage and Redbook, to Canada’s new anti-sex work law—the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act—which includes provisions banning the advertisement of sexual services.

According to the release, it took a crack team of detectives and the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Field Office to work out that despite Rentboy.com’s claim that the site only facilitated companionship, it was actually advertising sex. “As alleged, Rentboy.com profited from the promotion of prostitution despite their claim that their advertisements were not for sexual services,” said New York Police Commissioner Wiliam Bratton in the press release.

Reading the press release, I was immediately struck by its use of rhetoric. Unlike official statements around the crackdowns on Backpage and similar services that are known primarily for advertising cis women sex workers, no mention is made of Rentboy aiding the nefarious work of sex traffickers. As well, unlike in most sex work raids, no mention is made of anti-trafficking organizations reaching out to supposed “victims.” It is a loud and curious omission given that police find it impossible to talk about sex work at all these days without discussing trafficking.

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