‘Now we don’t have a safe place’: sex workers’ social media site Switter shuts down amid legal fears

Platform says government changes to online safety and defamation laws in Australia, UK and US made it ‘impossible’ to comply

Silhouette of a person with a laptop beside office cabinets
Switter told its 420,000-plus users on Monday night that the site was shutting down immediately because changed laws had made it difficult to continue. Photograph: Juice/Rex/Shutterstock

A social media platform for sex workers with close to half a million users globally has shut down over legal concerns regarding online safety laws and the Australian government’s social media defamation legislation.

Switter, which runs on Twitter-replica Mastodon, was set up by an Australian collective of sex workers and technologists, Assembly Four, in 2018 in response to the anti-sex trafficking legislation known as Sesta/Fosta in the United States leading to a number of sites like Backpage shutting down, or platforms banning sex work content.

Switter works as a safe space by, and for, sex workers, with little concern that their content or accounts will be censored. On the site, sex workers can find each other, share safety information, find clients and find out legal information or service availability.

“There is no fear that we’re going to need to censor ourselves,” Brisbane-based sex worker Sienna Charles told Guardian Australia. “There is no fear that we’re going to be outed.”

However, the managers of the site announced on Monday night that they had decided to shut down immediately, telling its more than 420,000 users the raft of “online safety” and defamation laws in the US, UK and Australia made it difficult to keep the platform running.

“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,” the letter states.

The UK is working on bringing in an online safety bill this year similar to that passed in Australia last year. One of the concerns that has led to Switter shutting down is that the Online Safety Act regulates adult content online based on definitions of acceptable content which pre-date the internet. Fetish content, for example, must be removed if a complaint is received.

Lobby group Digi had raised questions about this before the legislation passed to no avail. Assembly Four said it showed how difficult it was for smaller social media platforms to navigate the new laws.

“If big tech with millions of dollars in funding and access to the best talent are confused by these regulations, how did we or any small business stand a chance?”

“Due to the constant sexualisation and fetishisation of the LGBTQIA+ existence, the tools that are purported to protect children and young people online are causing more harm through the normalisation of surveillance and censorship.”

Another concern leading to the shut down is the prospect of the government’s so-called social media anti-trolling legislation. The legislation, which will make platforms liable for defamation if they do not help to unmask an account making defamatory comments, would place a platform like Switter in the position of potentially having sex workers or their clients’ anonymity removed in a time when they can still face discrimination from banks, housing and other institutions for the work.

“If this law passes … then it means that they could be compelled to give up their users’ information and that’s not something [Switter is] prepared to do, or take liability, which is also not something they’re prepared to do, because that’s very expensive,” Charles said.

As the Victorian parliament voted last week to decriminalise sex work, online sex workers were finding that laws ostensibly about improving safety online were making it less safe for them to work and communicate, said Jules Kim, the CEO of Scarlet Alliance.

“We’re celebrating decriminalisation in Victoria, and on the other hand we’re seeing our presence in the digital spaces shrinking,” she said. “I think that that is a real, major threat to sex workers and our ability to operate and operate independently.”

Charles said there were other private forums and groups that sex workers could turn to, but it wasn’t the same level of openness and communication as Switter had, and there was the constant concern that at any point they could be banned from a platform like Twitter or Reddit without notice.

“What ends up happening as a result of things like this is that we have to hop platforms a lot and build up our following again,” she said. “And if you’re even a little bit too spicy online, on Twitter, I’ve had my account deleted before, and to build on 22,000-odd [followers] – and now I’m back at 6,000 – I’m really sad about it.

“It impacts your income, having to do that kind of thing again and again and again. And removing Switter just means that now we don’t have a safe place.”

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