Lola Hunt & Eliza Sorenson, Assembly Four

Assembly Four episode image
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Lola Hunt & Eliza Sorenson, Assembly Four
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Lola Hunt and Eliza Sorensen join the podcast to tell us about their crucial work to build an internet safe for sex workers. Through their company Assembly Four, Lola and Eliza maintain Switter, a Mastodon fork serving sex workers who were deplatformed from other sites, and Tryst, an advertising platform for sex work. In this special long-form episode, we talk about the fallout from America’s FOSTA/SESTA legislation, the global fight for sex worker protection, and what norms need to shift to have honest, open conversations about sex, consent, and abuse.​

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody, this is Ethan Zuckerman, welcome back to re-imagining the internet. We’re having a conversation today with, Eliza, with two women that I’ve been really excited to meet, Lola Hunt and Eliza Sorensen. They’re both in Melbourne, Australia and they are co founders of Assembly Four. Which I think is just one of the most remarkable projects out there, Imagining different Internets. Welcome you two and I’m so happy to have you here.

Lola Hunt:

Thank you so much for having us.

Eliza Sorensen:

It’s great to be here. [crosstalk 00:00:29].

Lola Hunt:

It feels so great to be here.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, whoever wants to take this on one on first, what is Assembly Four and how did it come about?

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, Its all right, you go.

Eliza Sorensen:

I’m Eliza.

Lola Hunt:

And I’m Lola. So Assembly Four, started kind of it was a little bit before 2018. But the bulk of our projects came out of 2018 in response to a piece of legislation called FOSTA-SESTA, which passed in the US. This was a law which basically ended up de-platforming, sex workers not only in the US, but worldwide. And in response to that, we launched a platform called Switter.

Eliza Sorensen:

To be fair, it was a little bit before FOSTA-SESTA, passed. [crosstalk 00:01:22].

Lola Hunt:

Exactly.

Eliza Sorensen:

I think it is important to cover that for legal reasons. That we started it primarily because workers were being kicked off platforms, just because Twitter, Instagram, etc. Were worried about what was about to happen.

Ethan Zuckerman:

[crosstalk 00:01:38]. Right, so, SESTA-FOSTA, passes in 2018 on the surface of it, it’s a pair of bills in the United States, designed to stop sex trafficking. But people all over the internet and particularly sex workers, were arguing that this legislation was going to force legitimate users off, of platforms all over the world. Tell us a little bit more about sort of the pre FOSTA-SESTA internet.

Eliza Sorensen:

Oh, God, I think it’s been a bit of a weird space, because in the build up to FOSTA-SESTA, things we’re getting quite hostile.

Lola Hunt:

Yes.

Eliza Sorensen:

Anyway, at least in Australia, we were having surveillance laws pushed further onto us.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Great.

Eliza Sorensen:

And we’ve seen the crackdown, many people in the United States wanting to shut down section 230, prior to Foster Sister.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Sure.

Eliza Sorensen:

So I do think we will becoming more close.

Lola Hunt:

More polarized.

Eliza Sorensen:

More polarized and there just wasn’t a great deal of good platforms available to sex workers. Yes, there was more platforms available but they were all predatory.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah and some of them had already sort of started kicking us off like, Twitter. I think it was late 2017, when we started seeing the first sort of shadow banning or mass shadow happening. Which obviously, we had a whole bunch of sex workers that no longer had a platform to sort of, socialize on or kind of connect with their clients on. Which is really important for us to be able to have those contacts and keep each other safe. So, Switter sort of, was a, outlet for that and kind of helped with that, really.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah and we should say Switter, is built off Mastodon, which is an open source project for decentralized social media. So that allows you to have your, little niche section of the internet, but connect with other people’s little niche sections of the internet, which is lovely.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, it’s nice.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right, Mastodon is a project that we talk about a lot here, my lab actually does a lot of work with Mastodon. Really, for the same reason, the idea that you can fork the code, you can build your own affordances around it. But it’s it sounds like, Twitter was not just a space where sex workers were talking with clients, it was also a community space. My guess is also, safety issues and sort of ways of talking to people, about situations in the industry. Important to sort of have that channel. What happened once FOSTA-SESTA pass. Were sex workers already leaving the platform or was there sort of a purge that happened at the same time. In the same way that Backpage basically disappeared.

Lola Hunt:

Well, I guess it’s sort of began in late 2017. So I’d say it was more of a trickle a big trickle might I say but a trickle. Because I think the thing was Shadow banning, is that often you don’t know what’s happening.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Lola Hunt:

It’s because it’s not like you get a notification that you’ve been shadow banned or like that you’ve been restricted in any way. You just all of a sudden, your posts aren’t being reached and people can’t see what you’re trying to say. The influx that we saw… Because we had, a lot of people did sign up because of the shadow banning on Twitter. And also, the restrictions that were starting to come into play on, Instagram is a sort of when we sort of crack down on some of the sexually explicit. I didn’t think it was even that sexually explicit content on Instagram.

Eliza Sorensen:

At one point, they banned women hashtag.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, they did and that was around the same time.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah.

Lola Hunt:

And so we saw, quite a few people come from then. But the bulk of it actually happened after Backpage was removed. And people were… I mean, this went beyond the Twitter crowd. This was a lot of people who, they don’t necessarily manage social media platforms and their own social media and things like that and they were more vulnerable. They were the people that sort of relied on that page for their income. And so through Switter, they were able to sustain themselves and keep their head above water while this stupid law was being passed.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Lola Hunt:

And platforms were reacting to it in the way that they were. So, that’s sort of where the bulk of people came from. And of course, because there was press coverage we had clients come across and that’s sort of how it grew from there. We weren’t expecting the rate of growth. But we handled it how we could, got through it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So my guess is that all of our users are going to be pretty familiar with Twitter and sort of what it makes possible. Some are going to be less familiar with Backpage. And sort of the role that, that was playing in the sex worker community. Can you sort of talk about that a little bit. And sort of how Switter and now tryst.link, are sort of trying to fill some of that space?

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, sure. So, Backpage was a really unique platform or space online for sex workers, just because it had the bulk of the market. If you were… It ranked so highly in search results, It was such an old site. Everyone knew about it, it was the go to for most clients for a long period.

Eliza Sorensen:

And it hasn’t changed. So, you could come back after three years and it’s like, “oh, this is the same thing I want to…” So there’s a lot of familiarity.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Sort of Craigslist, in that sense.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah.

Lola Hunt:

Exactly, exactly. And you also… There was also a lot of flexibility that you had on Backpage. That we don’t have now because of either the platforms or legislation or whatever is going on there. In that you were able to post an ad for a very small amount of money. And it would guarantee you work for that day. There wasn’t a lot of times when you would go on Backpage and pay for an ad and you wouldn’t get a booking. Whereas that’s a very normal thing now, because there isn’t one party that holds the bulk of the market. So people have to spread themselves across different platforms. It also allowed like, you didn’t have to have your ad up all the time. You didn’t need to have an account, you didn’t need to…. This was for the bulk of my experience with Backpage. So I can’t speak for the end of it, because I’m not sure what happened at the very end. But you didn’t have to submit ID which is the big one.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Kind of interesting, okay.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, because at the time, a lot of the other sites… I’m sorry, a lot of the other sites, required ID and I still require ID now. And when you’re undocumented or you are in a position where you can’t give over your ID for whatever reason. Backpage was kind of a Savior in that sense. So it was a really key and core part of our community that was stripped from us. And it’s really shocking to see and it’s really sad to say that, that is gone even now. And it’s also very interesting to look at, now why Backpage was taken down. And I’m trying to… Do you really know, what I’m trying to say?

Eliza Sorensen:

No, I have no idea.

Lola Hunt:

I guess that… Because that page was, at the time, there was a lot of panic around human trafficking and trafficking sex industry.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Lola Hunt:

And that was the reason that they were like, “we need to take this down because there’s all this stuff that’s happening on Backpage and all these underage people.”

Eliza Sorensen:

And for what it is worth Backpage wasn’t taken down with FOSTA-SESTA.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay.

Eliza Sorensen:

I think that was a very important thing for people to know, it was actually just taken down with racketeering. Like most things in the realm of making money criminally.

Lola Hunt:

And I actually worked with law enforcement for a lot of their existence. There are records of people from… Was it the FBI that was saying that Backpage were very responsive and they were quick to get back to them with, [subpoena and things 00:11:18]. [crosstalk 00:11:18]

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah and it’s not just FBI, it’s local law enforcement agencies and things like that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Eliza Sorensen:

One of the reasons that they kind of did get taken down was they were hoping workers edit their profiles. And that kind of blurs the line between. [crosstalk 00:11:37].

Ethan Zuckerman:

So the theory was that because Backpage was editing profiles, they actually were sort of veering into being publishers at that point. And something like section 230 immunity was harder to achieve at that point. But so Backpage was a US company, correct with the US servers and such?

Lola Hunt:

I’m not entirely sure about US servers to be completely honest, I’m going to say yes. [inaudible 00:12:02].

Eliza Sorensen:

They were a US based company.

Lola Hunt:

They were definitely a US based company.

Ethan Zuckerman:

But let’s talk about law, just for a moment here. So sex work in Australia is legal is decriminalized.

Lola Hunt:

Varied amounts, it differs state to state. Where we are, we’re in a formal legalization and regulation. We are currently in a push for decriminalization across Australia. That’s the Northern Territory passed last year. And New South Wales already has it, so we have a good chance of being able to pass it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Okay, so Backpage disappears, Twitter shadow banning people, Instagram is trying to figure out what its rules are around this. Obviously, these rules keep going back and forth, right? Twitter and Instagram both seem to have gotten very comfortable these days with only fans. Which has its own implications within this space. But at this point, the two of you felt like it was really important to have a space expressly for sex workers. How do you go about building this? How do you go about building this under Australian law or under law somewhere else in the world?

Eliza Sorensen:

I think one of the primary things is knowing that you have sex work in a semi legalized state. When looking at the United States, there is just the conflation of sex work and sex trafficking. And I think that’s the primary reason why a lot of platforms just can’t take the legal risk. We were kicked off CloudFlare. Nazis, get 24 hours notice, we didn’t.

Lola Hunt:

Add to it a press conference.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right and what sort of content are they planning on legalizing or what sort of content gets…[crosstalk 00:14:48].

Lola Hunt:

That’s an interesting question.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Or is the vagueness of that, in fact the problem.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah, so in Australia, we have a very broken classification system and have had for at least 25 years. And they’re just importing broken classification into the online safety bill. So basic BDSM falls into, I think it’s cluster.

Lola Hunt:

Yep.

Eliza Sorensen:

So they can just strip it from the internet as abhorrent. And there have been some concessions or at least put in the amendment. That any decision that has been taken down through the Safety Office will then need to be referred on to the classification board. But that was something that we had to fight for, including basic transparency reports, which we didn’t get everything we wanted.

Lola Hunt:

That we needed.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah, the eSafety Office, Commissioner, Julie [Inman Grant 00:15:48], is also very close with certain organizations who take money from the United States. And thus have to sign the anti prostitution pledge, which means that… It’s pretty clear what it means, I think.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, under the pledge, it was enacted under Bush, in the early 2000s. And under the pledge, you have to basically… what’s the word? Enact a policy within your organization. Which basically takes an anti prostitution stance, as well as an anti human trafficking stance. And so under this, not only do you have to implement that, but you also can advocate for the legalization of sex work.

Eliza Sorensen:

Or decriminalization.

Lola Hunt:

Or decriminalization in the States. So obviously, this has put somewhat of a sensor on a lot of not for profits that are actually trying to help victims of human trafficking. But also just sex workers that are wanting to leave the industry. And they can’t advocate for legalization, they can’t advocate for decriminalization. And they also can’t help any of the organizations that are based in sex work. So knowing that these not for profits that are working on this bill, for example.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah.

Lola Hunt:

Which is an Australian bill is extremely worrying for us. Because, obviously, we have a different set of legislation in Australia and attitude towards sex in general.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And legalization of sex work within at least part of the country.

Eliza Sorensen:

And decriminalization, which is very, rear I would say.

Lola Hunt:

Absolutely.

Ethan Zuckerman:

But just to sort of make sure that I fully understand the situation. So, in the evolution of Assembly Four, you have the change in the landscape in the US. We have the platforms that sex workers are using and relying on, like Backpage. Which for, despite the fact that it’s cooperating with authorities or maybe because it’s cooperating with authorities, not clear. Is actually, in many cases, a fairly safe space for sex workers.

Eliza Sorensen:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman:

That Twitter, Instagram, some of the other spaces in which people are having communities to discuss. They start getting cold feet, as they’re facing the legislation coming down with SESTA-FOSTA. It becomes very difficult for sex workers in a place like Melbourne, where it’s legal to be a sex worker. To find clients to talk with people about work online, so on and so forth. So Assembly Four steps in at this point. And Assembly Four is founded specifically to work on these questions of creating spaces for sex workers online.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, I mean, to be honest, we kind of fell into it initially. We didn’t come from activists backgrounds.

Eliza Sorensen:

We originally wanted to create like a…

Lola Hunt:

CRM.

Eliza Sorensen:

CRM for sex workers so that they could manage that stuff easily. But FOSTA-SESTA, came around and it really changed the landscape of if there’s no sex workers, there’s no CRM. And that is very capitalist way to look at it but…[crosstalk 00:19:30].

Lola Hunt:

That’s why we began.

Eliza Sorensen:

That’s what was happening to the industry. Is like, if there was no spaces for us, we don’t exist.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

We don’t get to have a say we are invisible.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah and I think, it also kind of, just purely because of FOSTA-SESTA and the shadow banning and censorship, that was happening at the time. It did very much throw us into having to think about the structures that we do live under at the moment. And how we fit into those structures as sex workers and also as technologists. What our responsibilities are and how we should be running a platform like Switter. [crosstalk 00:20:12].

Eliza Sorensen:

Or even building platforms of, how are we upholding White Supremacy Patriarchy with what we build.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah and how can we help dismantle that. Because I think we’ve Tryst, which is our other platform we haven’t mentioned yet. Tryst is an ad platform, whereas Switter is more of social media based. And through running Tryst, we have had to really look at how we fit in terms of capitalism. Because unlike every other tech business, it’s not appropriate for us to be applying the same sort of mindset that you would have regular app. Because these aren’t people who like… These aren’t… I was going to say, these aren’t regular people. That’s not true at all, they are regular people. But I mean, sex workers are some of the most vulnerable people in society or people made vulnerable.

Eliza Sorensen:

And I think there’s a difference between making a reasonable profit of what you create versus being predatory.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

We can see with a lot of advertising directories and classifieds that, it can cost like $1,000 quite easily for a week’s worth of advertising. And that’s…

Lola Hunt:

Ridiculous.

Eliza Sorensen:

There’s no other word for it.

Lola Hunt:

Considering who the market is, It’s just not… We don’t think that it’s right.

Eliza Sorensen:

And I think it’s also, you don’t see the value in those platforms. The workers are spending this huge amounts of money and nothing’s ever changed. Nothing’s ever improved because the support are awful to them and it’s exploitative. Yeah, it is and they have a direct need to keep it that way.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

This is why they don’t advocate for decriminalization, because they [further force prices 00:22:10]. [crosstalk 00:22:10].

Ethan Zuckerman:

Because its working for them, they’re making money off of that system at that point. But so just to distinguish the two, so Switter, looks quite a bit like Twitter. It just has rules of the road that are open to sex work and no one’s going to get shadow banned or removed for it. It’s part of a system of federated social networks, where if someone decides that they’re worried about conversations about sex work on their platform, they can decide not to federate with you and not be in conversation. But most of the Mastodon Universe, ends up saying, “that’s what’s happening on your server, we’ll pipe traffic back and forth between the two. Whereas Tryst is different, right? Tryst is a stand alone platform, where people are buying advertising. They’re advertising, escort services, their advertising content through only fans, etc. What’s the financial relationship there? Is that a for-profit that is subsidizing the nonprofit. How is that working?

Eliza Sorensen:

So unfortunately, because of liability reasons, we weren’t actually able to put Switter into a not for profit structure in itself. So it sits within our for-profit. We didn’t want to charge anything for Switter at any point. And that’s why we actually created Tryst, so we could actually financially support Switter. As well as getting an ad platform up where we actually got to push some of the changes we wanted to see. Particularly around language, which is important in removing stigma and shame from our community and industry.

Lola Hunt:

And it was also like, I mean, at the time, we were also approached by a handful of people who were interested in investing. And which also throws another ethical question into the mix. Because obviously, this is something that we decided that we weren’t going to take. Same with advertising, because a lot of the people who wanted to advertise with us, they were people who were from the platforms that we were speaking about before. Where they were exploiting workers, where they do use derogatory language and they continue sort of upholding these structures. And so we had to really put our foot down and then be like, this is going to be a bootstrapped project. Which, obviously that’s why Tryst came out of that, because services are expensive.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yes, they are.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So the reason I’m so fascinated by this is that there’s a history of people being de-platformed and Creating alternative spaces. Often this is not a good thing, right? Often it’s… The Nazis get kicked off and they form gab.ai.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, that’s exactly.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Obviously this is coming from the diametrically opposed piece of this. Right? You’re trying to figure out how to keep some very vulnerable people safe. And in part because of the insane prudishness of the US government. In some cases, it creates a very challenging legal landscape around this. So I think what’s really remarkable is this idea of supporting sex workers and trying to create this sort of less oppressive, more open space. And I think the compromises that you’ve had to make sort of legally and otherwise to sort of make it happen are utterly fascinating. But I think this vision of people for whom the internet doesn’t work as is, carving out their own corners is what I’m so fascinated by. So I think the question that sort of comes out of that is, what else do we need? What else does the sex worker community need to have the internet be a space that’s safe for sex work?

Lola Hunt:

Am like, “where do I start?”

Eliza Sorensen:

Well, I think the biggest one is, we have to acknowledge we had a lot of privilege. We had the ability to contract out as expensive engineers to pay for our service while we were bootstrapping this company. We had very good connections in Australia within the tech community and the sex worker community. People don’t realize how much liability risk is involved with starting up one of these entities or projects. And every other week, we get an email from someone in the United States, in particular, wanting to do this. And, sadly, we have to turn around and go, you really can’t. You really can’t do something like this in the United States, because you will be arrested. We need legislation to change before we throw more risk onto already vulnerable communities.

Lola Hunt:

We need serious systemic structural change to happen. Because I think, as we all see, now, the internet is being regulated. And unfortunately, what is being used to regulate the internet is legislation. Which is based on individual countries, rather than in catering to those individual countries values and supposed morals of the entire community, apparently. And obviously, that’s problematic, because not everyone has the same views as a US citizen or an Australian citizen, etc, etc. And we’re also trying to apply a system which was formed by… Like the law itself is something that was developed by a very small handful of individuals and it was used to uphold their supremacy. It has always been used to oppress people based on race or gender etc. And so I think it’s quite problematic that we are trying to apply or use this, to regulate the internet in the first place. So what it feels to me, I know I’m quite trying to be optimistic about this sort of stuff. But it’s hard to be optimistic when we are trying to sort of re-implement really harmful legislation that we’ve seen, being harmful offline, apply to online.

Eliza Sorensen:

And then the idea that regulating online is a silver bullet for offline harm, which is just not the case.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. I really think that the whole legislation, the law needs to change. There needs to be a cultural shift, there needs to be a change in legislation. I think even things like… Something that’s come up at the moment in Australia with the online safety bill. And a lot of conversations in other Five Eyes, countries have been around stopping child sexual abuse material. And this is the new sort of thing that we’re all apparently fighting because it’s so prevalent and it’s everywhere.

Eliza Sorensen:

I think it’s also important to recognize that trafficking has now become unpalatable because of what’s happening with QAnon. And a lot of those organizations that were traditionally leaning on it has had to move away from it.

Lola Hunt:

And they are now taking on sort of [as we can say it, bill 00:29:59]. [crosstalk 00:30:00].

Ethan Zuckerman:

And just to sort of unpack that for half a moment here. There have been organizations that are fighting child trafficking. That are same rational organizations that are working often with sex worker communities. They are trying to help people from being found with an exploitative situations. The QAnon narrative believes that some huge number of people involved with mainstream politics around the world are also pedophile sex traffickers. And have sort of adopted a lot of the language and a lot of the interest. And by virtue of being this highly participatory movement, are sort of trying to use many of the tools of sort of fighting sex trafficking. Or at least the language around it to sort of spread this broader political conspiracy. Is that more or less right?

Lola Hunt:

I mean, yes, In terms of QAnon, yes. That’s correct, I guess the thing is that they didn’t pull the statistics reports, the research that didn’t come out of nowhere.

Eliza Sorensen:

These organizations didn’t really want to work with sex workers because they don’t believe that sex workers can make an autonomous choice.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Got it, okay.

Eliza Sorensen:

It’s just morally wrong and abhorrent.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, so, you have people who… You have these groups who we refer to as abolitionist groups who their aim is to end the sex trade. To put it into all sex workers everywhere, they want us to not exist. Which I don’t know where that logic has even come from. But, it’s never going to happen. But, I mean, they are also a big reason why QAnon exists in the first place. Is because of things like the anti prostitution pledge, which I was speaking about before. There’s legislation such as this, which has enabled these groups to access federal funding. To financially push them forward and to create these false narratives, because they do have a financial incentive to do so. Which is obviously extremely problematic and obviously when there are so many people relying on human trafficking to exist and continue existing. There’s also a financial incentive to produce… To ensure that it’s always prevalent and it looks that way to the public, so they can continue to access funding.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right, [crosstalk 00:32:55]. So the statistics about sex trafficking are suspect by virtue of the fact that these organizations have an interest in continuing to fight it. Do you feel like this sort of dynamic is now moving into child sexual abuse imagery as well?

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, so, child sexual abuse material is something that exists. I just want to point out, like acknowledge that it’s not something that we’re for obviously, it is something that does exist. However, a lot of the organizations that are currently fighting it, their main aim isn’t really to get rid of child sex or sexual abuse material. Because the approaches that they are taking don’t actually prevents that material from being produced in the first place.

Eliza Sorensen:

Its just, they come along after the fact.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, because if we were to actually combat child sexual abuse material, that would be much more focused on passing legislation. Which helps educate kids and adults on consent and sex ed, abuses frameworks and things like that.

Eliza Sorensen:

We would be looking at this as a very different problem. And I think there’s also, when we talk about, pedophilia or people who are attracted to minors. We would be looking at that as a health problem, rather than a judicial consideration problem that we need to address these…

Ethan Zuckerman:

So when you look at sort of resources, there’s a big conversation right now, in the sort of social media space. Facebook has gotten quite aggressive about building a database. Where they’re checking their imagery against a database of child sexual abuse imagery and then trying to sort of filter it out. And there’s a sense of, maybe this is something that perhaps has sort of the minimum needs to be done by other social networks. And I have to say, instead of looking at that my response, for sure that that makes a certain amount of sense, why not do that? Is there a way in which… Am I falling for an argument there that seems on its surface to actually be fairly rational?

Lola Hunt:

I think yes and no.

Eliza Sorensen:

I think yes and no, because one of the problems is, Facebook, in particular, are utilizing something called photoDNA or spotlight. Both of these programs are intertwined with Microsoft and Thorn. If we ought to be using these type of databases, they should be looked after by police, not private entities who have access to this material.

Lola Hunt:

Who are run by… A lot of the people who are doing this, the moderation and things like that, are not on Facebook. On these sorts of programs, they’re civilians. They’re not people who have been trained specifically for those sorts of roles. I don’t know how to handle that sort of material.

Eliza Sorensen:

I think it’s also just, [cheerly 00:36:13] it’s the responsibility of police.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

Why is a private entity being able to make money of hashes of child pornography. One of the things we actually did try to get access to photoDNA early on and we were rejected. What do we do as a company? And say I think that’s the same with Thorn, we have asked for a list of… What is it? What was the name for that keyword list? Oh, yes, the key word list that you can use against anything that gets posted on your website. Sort of like, if you have certain words, like Lolita, for example, which might ring a bell. Then it’ll send an alert or something like that to your moderation team to have it investigated.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right, so these feel like resources that just should be public resources, right? So the notion should be in creating Switter, in creating Tryst, it makes sense to be able to have access to something where you can check imagery against the database for child sexual abuse imagery. But having that owned by Microsoft or having a built in a way where it’s being built by civilians and it’s not being done by law enforcement. It’s also, as far as I can tell, not being audited, right? It’s not being checked around. And here, we’ve seen sort of civil rights compliance more around databases of terrorist and extremist content. Where you have pushback from Electronic Frontier Foundation and others sort of arguing, “look, this could be a very helpful thing, but we really need the ability to audit it and make sure that it is what it says it is.”

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah, I think that’s really important. Because there’s also Thorn’s product spotlight in particular, also, scrapes websites of escort directories and the Luck. Multiple times, we have tried to get in contact with them, including at the UN Internet Governance Forum in 2019. And they completely ignored the idea that they might be doing harm to a community. They don’t provide any way to see if your material has been uploaded, there is no way to see if they’ve been breached.

Lola Hunt:

There’s no way to opt out. [crosstalk 00:38:29]. If you have been scraped like there’s no… [crosstalk 00:38:32].

Eliza Sorensen:

And as a company, we can’t prevent them from scraping us because they just don’t adhere to rules. They don’t give a fuck.

Ethan Zuckerman:

That’s fine, we’re not National Public Radio here. You can say what you want.

Lola Hunt:

Am sorry.

Eliza Sorensen:

Talking it for sure.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What I’m getting out of all of this is in my sort of, internet fantasy universe. Over in Australia, extremely smart sex workers and their allies are creating an alternate parallel internet. Where they can be really thoughtful about creating the less oppressive, more fair, less capitalistic versions of all of this. And I was ready to sort of ask, “Okay, come teach us how we reform the rest of the internet.” Your responses is, “No, no, no, no, it doesn’t get us out of this, this is an enormous thorny, legal battle.” Tell me about that legal battle, what are the things that you need to win to continue doing this work?

Lola Hunt:

Well, I mean, honestly, I don’t know how this is achieved, but just because I don’t think anyone knows. But like, as I said before, on a broader scope, there needs to be a cultural shift. In which there is, the way, the various ways that structural oppression has been integrated into our society is addressed. But I think for that to happen, there needs to be a upheaval of the law in general. And there needs to be… We need to scrap it and start again, basically, from a practical sense.

Eliza Sorensen:

I think we need decriminalization in the United States, because that would stop the inflation of sex work and sex trafficking. And one of the things that’s problematic about the United States because it has so much of the tech sector about 31 to 32%. Is they export morals on to the rest of the world and we’re seeing behavior shift in different parts around sex work.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

So I think we really need the United States to be [decrimed 00:40:50]. One for the safety of sex workers, but for the safety of each [each of them 00:40:55].

Ethan Zuckerman:

Is there a venue in Europe that is better for sex workers where we could sort of imagine. It sounds like Australia is really wrestling with the Five Eyes, is wrestling with very close ties to the US in terms of questions of legislation. Is there a country that handles this better that we might sort of think about and sort of look to, for carving out a space for this.

Lola Hunt:

I’m going to go in the negative. So I’ll start off with the negative and the next we can go on to the legislation. At the moment, it seems that this is happening worldwide in terms of countries using legislation, to target, [CSAM 00:41:44] online. And to regulate the internet under the guise of fighting CSAM online and things like that.

Eliza Sorensen:

As a way to push surveillance.

Lola Hunt:

That’s exactly what I was going to say. So I think that they’ve figured out a lot of, particularly on the right. I think that they’ve figured out that this is a very palatable way to push through surveillance without backlash. Because think about the children and I think like, also, a lot of the older generations without being ages. Because this is totally prevalent with, old generations, but particularly with older generations. Is that because there hasn’t been this, they haven’t really had a proper conversations around sex. And they don’t have the same openness around sex and desire and things like that, that we have in younger generations. You’re dealing with them sort of projecting their own… [crosstalk 00:42:53].

Eliza Sorensen:

Shame.

Lola Hunt:

Shame and insecurities onto sex workers. And so it’s very hard for them to see nuance in some of the arguments that we put forward. A lot of the time when I’m speaking about this sort of stuff, there will be always someone that pops up, that’s like, “But it’s just better, to do something than nothing.” And it’s like, I mean, “No, because you’re going to do a lot of harm while you’re doing that thing.” And you’re also not solving the problem. It’s obviously very hard to pitch to people that, treating people who are minor or attracted. As if they have a disorder or a illness or whatever or they need therapy. People don’t react well to that and there isn’t anyone’s conversations around that. Same with, teaching kids consent and that’s it. [crosstalk 00:43:51].

Eliza Sorensen:

About sexuality, as a queer kid who grew up in rural Australia, I was bullied to no end. And the internet was the only safe place for me to find out anything because it wasn’t being taught in schools. And if it wasn’t, like an argument my dad used as well, when I had this conversation with him. And a lot of people have said the same thing, is that children shouldn’t be able to access, to go online and access porn or look at porn. And it’s kind of, I mean, look, yes, that’s fine but why are they doing that in the first place? They’re doing that because it’s a taboo. They’re doing that because they’re curious, because they children. And because they haven’t been taught anything otherwise. And then they go on, because porn is mainstream porn, free mainstream porn, might I say. Is very much a reflection of society and the values that we hold. Of course, they’re going to go on and have these misogynistic attitudes and things like that.

Eliza Sorensen:

Because their parent and no one is having the conversation with them about what relationship and intimacy looks like in the real world. Because, yes, sex can definitely look like porn, but not most of the time.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah, exactly. And there’s also like, I think part of that conversation with kids needs to cover. Things like misogyny and domestic violence and things like that.

Eliza Sorensen:

And coercion.

Lola Hunt:

And coercion, so that they do have also the language to identify when they have had their consent breached.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So step one and this is a normative shift, right? Step one of this is norms and attitudes. Is there any part of the world where you see law sort of catching up with this?

Eliza Sorensen:

So I think New Zealand is a good place in general, but they do not apply their decriminalization to immigrants. Which is a big problem and causes lots of hurt among that community. They’re Five Eyes country, so they have some very crappy laws already and especially around classification. Because we all borrow from each other. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a country in Europe that’s doing it well. Germany is mostly parsecs, however, due to the pandemic we’re seeing the rhetoric of disease spread is come back up. Like, the things that we saw during the plague.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

And I think that’s also having a problem with the current conversations happening around sex work and decriminalization is around health.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So this is a huge long term shift. So for as much as we could admire Assembly Four, for building Switter. As an alternative building Tryst, sort of thinking about future projects and all of this. It sounds like the overall arc is sort of a cultural project, not just around sex work, but really about sex. And sort of changing attitudes, changing opinions. Is there a way that the internet works sort of plays into that as well?

Eliza Sorensen:

If we can stay on platform, sure. Due to FOSTA-SESTA, there was a uprising in sex worker activists. Who have just said enough is enough. And we started to see LGBTQI people being pushed off platforms disabled educators. It is no longer just about sex workers, we were just the canary in the coal mine.

Lola Hunt:

Yeah.

Eliza Sorensen:

I really think there is a bigger role for platforms to play, especially like Twitter and Instagram, WhatsApp signal. All of these companies are impacted by what’s happening to us. It’s quite clear with the online safety bill, in Australia, they’re looking to regulate any business on the internet. So even your little mom and pop, IT store will be regulated if I go to websites. So I think we really need to push on platforms and other small businesses and companies to try and push the change. Because really, that’s what politicians listen to is the economy.

Lola Hunt:

And I think like platforms need to understand that, the damage of kicking sex workers off their platforms, it goes beyond just kicking a group off their platform. And the damages that, that does to those group. In the case of sex workers, because we are such a prominent intersection of so many different marginalization. Who are actually kicking off, are people who are often targets of white supremacists. So I think that needs to be spoken about more when we’re talking about the impacts of kicking sex workers, specifically off platform. Because a lot of the time they are the ones who are able to identify white supremacist, who are able to report white supremacists. I mean and it still hasn’t gotten… I think the sad thing about it, is it hasn’t gotten any better yet. And that’s, post coup or post attempted coup. And yesterday, for example, one of the workers from the States who is sort of a comedic figure in the industry. She is, I’m fairly certain Asian American. And out of all the day yesterday, she was de platformed because she was speaking out against the anti Asian racism that was happening.

Lola Hunt:

And a bunch of trolls jumped on her Twitter account and reported her and now she’s lost her income. And so it’s kind of, who are we really empowering here?

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right and I should just say, just in terms of the time that we’re doing this. Because we’re going to release this after the fact, yesterday, there was a horrific murder of Asian women working in spas in Atlanta. And obviously, contributing to violence against Asian Americans in the wake of the pandemic being termed by former President Trump the China virus, etc, etc. So just the context for that.

Eliza Sorensen:

Yeah, no, I think that is really important. But just what Lola, was saying is, “when platforms kick off sex workers or other groups, it gives permission to other platforms to do it as well.” Because Twitter, it just gives them permission.

Lola Hunt:

Which is why groups like, as we saw last year, I mean, there’s a lot of instances of this happening. But as we saw last year with one of the prominent anti trafficking and anti sex or the Exodus Cry. Who pressured, they started a petition called trafficking hub which was targeting Pornhub. And they’re still targeting Pornhub and they pressured MasterCard and Visa to remove the payment services from the platform. Which didn’t actually hurt Pornhub that much, but it did affect the individual sex workers that were using their platform to make a living, which is the goal.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And, of course, this campaign is supported at very elite levels. I mean, Nick Kristof, used his column in the New York Times to take a swing at Pornhub. And argue that, it’s functionally a front for trafficking.

Lola Hunt:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Ethan Zuckerman:

And, as you’re pointing out, what ends up happening in these cases, is individual workers who are often very marginalized, who are sort of facing the discrimination there. Lola, Eliza, thank you so much, I’m really impressed by what Assembly Four is doing. I’m also really chastened by sort of understanding how tenuous the situation is, even with the remarkable work that you’ve done. Lola and Eliza, thank you so much for being with me today.

Eliza Sorensen:

Thank you so much.

Lola Hunt:

Thank you for having us.

Eliza Sorensen:

It’s really been great to talk to you.

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