Cloudflare Just Banned a Social Media Refuge for Thousands of Sex Workers

Switter had more than 47,000 members, many looking for a safe alternative to Twitter and other big internet platforms, before Cloudflare terminated its service. The organization behind Switter is blaming SESTA/FOSTA.

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Apr 19 2018, 12:54pm

Switter logo via Switter.at

Update 4/19, 1:30 p.m. EST: Cloudflare's response to Switter's removal can be found here.

SESTA/FOSTA, a bill that president Donald Trump signed into law on April 11 and that was pitched as an anti-sex trafficking measure, continues to wreak havoc on the lives of sex workers across the United States and abroad.

After getting kicked off of platforms like Craigslist and advertising forums or preemptively limiting their digital footprint on social media platforms like Twitter, thousands of sex workers joined an alternative, decentralized social media platform called Switter, where they hoped to safely connect with and vet safe clients.

But on Wednesday, Assembly Four, the organization that developed Switter, announced that its content delivery network provided by Cloudflare removed and blocked Switter. "Given Cloudflare's previous stances of privacy and freedom, as well as fighting alongside the EFF, we had hoped they would take a stand against FOSTA/SESTA," Assembly Four said on its website.

At the time of writing, Switter has nearly 49,000 members and more than 376,500 posts, an explosion of activity since the service was launched in late March.

“Many people [were] looking for a platform which won't boot them off for how they make a living.”

Switter is an instance on Mastodon, a social network similar to Twitter where, instead of having one giant pool of users that is governed by one company, anyone can open their own instance with its own theme and community guidelines. In the gag instance Dolphin.town, for example, users can only communicate with the letter E. Switter was created by Australia-based technology organization Assembly Four. According to Buzzfeed, since sex work is decriminalized in Australia, the organization hoped that it would be safe from US laws that are cracking down on sex work.

According to Assembly Four, this is the message Cloudflare's legal department sent explaining why it was terminating service to Switter:

Cloudflare has been made aware that your site is in violation of our published Terms of Service. Pursuant to our published policy, Cloudflare will terminate service to your website. Cloudflare will terminate your service for switter{.}at by disabling our authoritative DNS.

Switter moved to a new content delivery network (CDN), which Assembly Four declined to name for security reasons. The last notable time Cloudflare denied its services to a client was when it canceled protection services for white supremacist website The Daily Stormer. Previously, Cloudflare has publicly supported open internet efforts like net neutrality and democratizing protections against DDoS attacks.

Cloudflare did not immediately respond for comment.

“Switter, for many people, has become their main point of contact for communication between them and other workers as well as them and clients,” Lola Hunt, co-founder of Switter, told me in an email. Especially after the closure of advertising site Backpage, she said, the instance saw a rise in member sign ups. Before Cloudflare removed it, Switter had more than 47,000 members. “Many people [were] looking for a platform which won't boot them off for how they make a living.”

"It was always about attacks on sexuality, and those who earn their income with sexual labor"

Following the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), platforms where sex workers advertise and operate began tightening their terms of service around explicit content or shut down altogether. Several forums dedicated to sex work advertising, and even some websites only tangentially involved in intimate meetups, like the Craigslist personals section and niche dating sites, proactively closed before FOSTA became law. And long before FOSTA, mainstream platforms like Twitter and Instagram have had a tenuous relationship with sex work: Many say they’re unfairly suspended, banned or shadowbanned for posting explicit content, even though they’re abiding by site terms.

The seizure and shutdown of advertising site Backpage.com days before Trump signed FOSTA was devastating to many in the trade—but Switter is a refuge for those in the industry to talk, network, trade advice and find clients. To them, Cloudflare’s decision is another brick in a wall being built between their livelihoods and the rest of the world.

“Censoring the internet was never going to help any victims, it only makes them less likely to be seen,” Liara Roux, a sex worker and independent porn producer, told me in Twitter messages following the Cloudflare news. “It was always about attacks on sexuality, and those who earn their income with sexual labor... Switter is a site by sex workers, for sex workers—and actual sex workers aren't under the control of shadowy overlords, they are mostly independent women, trans folks and queer men. And the reality is, there are millions and millions of them worldwide and they far outnumber the few people who believe all sex should be removed from the internet."