Technological Oppression: Are sex workers the canaries in the coalmine?

One of the many things I really appreciate about the annual Women in AI Ethics Summit is hearing from people who are doing important work but don’t always get the recognition or the platform they deserve to share their message. Savannah Sly is one of those people. She’s a sex worker rights advocate who had a number of lessons to share about the issue of technological oppression during her talk “Canaries in the Tech Coalmine: Lessons from the Sex Worker Rights Movement”.

Sex workers are early adopters in the use of technology. They were at the forefront of the early days of the internet, connecting on a myriad of digital platforms and using digital payment services. They are innovators who are often forced to move into new spaces as they are pushed out when more mainstream communities move in. Sly shared the numerous ways that digital spaces have helped to protect sex workers and in effect, make the industry safer by getting rid of “middle management”. Online advertising platforms like Backpage and Craigslist gave sex workers the opportunity to transaction directly with their customers. Online spaces also opened up new opportunities like the use of webcams to provide services at a distance. Digital transaction methods meant that sex workers could now research their prospective clientele online to further ensure they were able to safely transact with those they met in person. Digital payment methods prevented robberies and loss in what was previously an all cash business. Moving off the streets and allowing access to rented spaces via platforms helped further protect this community.

But there’s a fight taking place in allowing sex workers to have ongoing access to these digital spaces and as Sly explains, it’s having a harmful impact on sex workers. In an effort to end exploitation, new regulations, specifically SESTA and FOSTA in the US, have cast a very wide net. The goal of these regulations is to try and catch predatory sharks, the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world. However, as Sly explains, many small fish, individual sex workers, are being caught in this regulatory net instead.

These new regulations have made it a crime for anyone — including websites, digital payment services and other online spaces — to enable the sex trade. Surveillance mechanisms are being used to “shadow-ban” or block sex workers and deny them service to digital tools. Many sex workers have to host their websites offshore. Crypto currency has helped maintain some level of access to digital payment, but it doesn’t replace more mainstream payment processors like Paypal or Venmo. This far reaching blanket regulatory approach is putting sex workers at risk by cutting them off from the digital platforms that afforded them new protections. And all of this, Sly warns, isn’t just a problem for sex workers. It’s a bigger issue of technological oppression. The impact to sex workers is an early warning sign. As her presentation title notes, they are the canaries in the coalmine.

I understand Savannah Sly’s point because I’ve already seen this happen in another industry — the cannabis industry. I was part of the cannabis industry during the first year of legalization in Canada. I heard many stories of companies not being able to get a bank account and carrying around suitcases full of cash in order to do business. The company where I worked was suddenly kicked off one of our software platforms that was hosted in the US. We were told by the software company that they did not want to “aid and abet” a cannabis company and that left us scrambling for a new system. We were fortunate to have other options and the ability to find a new provider, but imagine if that were not the case. It would be devastating for a small business or an individual who is just trying to earn a living. Access to technology is a necessary part of transacting in the 21st century. Cutting off access to these vital services creates real harm. The work that Savannah Sly and organizations like hacking//hustling are doing to protect the rights of sex workers has broader implications. As Sly notes “what happens to sex workers can happen to the general public.”

This talk was enlightening on a lot of levels. It was a concrete example of how inequity and power imbalances play out when we sideline marginalized communities instead of inviting them to the table to discuss possible solutions that might address the real problem. Those in positions of power get to frame a problem and in attempting to solve that problem new harms can be created. This talk also made me think about the importance of collective action and organizing in order to “push back” and respond to unjust treatment. That collective response feels more necessary than ever. Seeing how these workers have organized, mobilized and conducted their own grassroots research to document the issues — that’s inspiring!