The Verified Internet Puts Sex Workers at Risk

In our attempts to make the internet safer, we run the risk of making it much more hostile to a vulnerable group.

Sep 6 2016, 11:00am

Image: Diana Ong/Getty

Lately, it seems like every website wants to see my ID.

Facebook was the first: as a part of the site's much maligned "real name" policy, I was asked to submit legal identification to verify my identity. Then Airbnb started asking me to submit both a Facebook account and legal identification in order to book a stay at someone else's apartment. And now Twitter's opened up its verification process to all sorts of users—provided, of course, those users are willing to send the staff a copy of their legal identification.

At first blush, this might all seem rather benign: Airbnb just wants to make sure its users are opening their homes to people who are who they say they are. Twitter needs that bit of ID to confirm verified accounts don't actually belong to talented fakes. And Facebook—well, Facebook is Facebook.

Read more: Twitter has made it impossible to ignore the reality of sex work

But as someone who's been working adjacent to the adult industry for the better part of a decade, this push towards a verified internet gives me pause. It makes me concerned that the next iteration of the social media sites that have been essential to the destigmatization of sex work—not to mention the internet, which has enabled many sex workers to make a living to begin with—won't be quite so amenable to sex work.

Sex workers are uniquely at risk for harassment.

It's not surprising that, as the internet matures, companies might seek to distance themselves from the more risque elements that have helped them build their businesses. For example, Tumblr—once so adult friendly the site boasted an officially sanctioned directory of erotic Tumblrs—started to crack down on adult content once Yahoo! got into the mix.

As the web matures into something more professional and family friendly, it's only natural that other social media sites might want to do something similar. But it's worth asking what we might lose if the voices of sex workers are pushed to the margins of the internet—and if the presumed benefits of "verification" are worth paying that cost.

In theory, there's nothing inherently anti-sex work about encouraging users to prove they are who they say they are, especially if a service allows users to publicly list themselves under a chosen, rather than given name. But requiring a legal ID adds an uncomfortable new wrinkle. It should be relatively obvious why a tweeting escort would want to avoid providing her legal information to whatever tech company asks for it, but even practitioners of legal sex work such as porn and stripping might not be too keen on the idea.

Sex workers are uniquely at risk for harassment. Providing one's legal identification to a startup offers one more potential way for that information to wind up in the wrong hands. The adult industry is still reeling from the 2011 hack of an adult industry-focused clinic that resulted in the creation of PornWikiLeaks, a database full of porn performer personal information that enabled the harassment and stalking of a number of adult stars, their families, and their loved ones.

While Twitter's security is likely better than AIM-Health's was, there's no question that database hacks and the potential for compromised privacy are a risk with any internet service. Even without a hack, providing an ID to the staff at Twitter or Facebook means that said staff has access to your legal info—a terrifying thought if, say, a potential (or actual) stalker happens to be on staff at a social media site you'd like to use. (If creepers at the NSA aren't above misusing their powers for stalking, why should we assume no one at a tech company would?)

It's possible that Twitter's failure to consider this angle is just one more example of Silicon Valley's famed white male tunnel vision. (If supplying an ID doesn't sound scary to the relatively privileged staff of Twitter, why should anyone else object?) But it's also possible that the potential chilling effect on sex worker voices is more than just an unintentional side effect.

Image: Diana Ong/Getty

Over the past few months, there've been multiple reports of Airbnb kicking sex workers off of the platform, often with no explanation or even any records of bad behavior, which makes the site's push towards verification feel a lot less benign. Sex workers—particularly ones who aren't shy about putting their face on the internet—are far less likely to have Facebook accounts under their legal name; requiring the combo of a Facebook profile and a matching legal ID creates a potentially insurmountable barrier for sex workers interested in Airbnb's service for personal use.

Verification is often framed as a way to reduce harassment: as Mic explains, the status is one of the few functional ways for users to reduce their exposure to nasty, violent comments and imagery, by offering advanced filtering options, like allowing users to only see responses from other verified users (the quality filter was recently rolled out to all users, but my recent experience with alt-right trolls suggests it's not actually all that useful). But for sex workers, it can create something of a bind. Eschew verification, and you miss out on tools designed to improve your online experience, or, in the case of Airbnb, get shut out of the experience entirely. Comply by sending in your ID, and you open up the potential for privacy violation, stalking, and harassment IRL.

In our attempts to make the internet safer, we run the risk of making it much more hostile to a vulnerable group that's deeply dependent on the web for activism, community, and connection. It's an ironic outcome for a platform often viewed as synonymous with sex—and an important reminder that our perception of what makes a service "safer" isn't always universal.