It is with great sadness that we hear of the closure of Switter – a sex work friendly social media platform – in response to an increasingly hostile regulatory environment that has eroded sex workers’ rights online over the last several years.
We also note the bitter irony of this loss coming within a week of Victoria becoming the third Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise sex work – a sign that the federal government’s legislative agenda is out of step with the people it purports to serve.
At Digital Rights Watch we wish to express our solidarity with and support of Assembly Four, who established and maintained Switter through an increasingly difficult time. We applaud them for the essential and pioneering work they have done in developing alternative, community-led online spaces for sex workers while laws such as the US’s FOSTA-SESTA have otherwise decimated the landscape and eradicated safe sex work communities.
As many of us know all too well, when the physical world is unsafe or unwelcoming, many turn to the internet to develop support networks, share vital knowledge, and build community. This has become all the more important over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to maintain the social interaction necessary for our health as human beings, and to continue to participate in civil society. We cannot allow this fundamental and vital aspect of the human experience to be dictated by the values of monolithic big tech corporations, nor by pearl-clutching politicians.
However, the legislative agenda of the last few years has steadily eradicated the ability of Australia’s most marginalised citizens to participate in civil life online. Over the past 18 months, we at Digital Rights Watch have actively contributed to the online safety debate in Australia. Over this period we have grown frustrated to see the language of online safety become co-opted by powerful actors who wish to leverage it for their own ends.
In February 2021 we warned that the the Online Safety Act was likely to cause significant harm to those who work in the sex industry, including sex workers, pornography creators, online sex-positive educators, and activists. As highlighted by President of Scarlet Alliance, Gala Vanting, in May of 2021, the approach to online safety has been all too willing to sacrifice the safety of sex workers. The closure of Switter is just the latest example of negative consequences of legislation that frames online safety in terms of moralism and policing, and without substantial changes, it will not be the last.
Digital Rights Watch has stood alongside Assembly Four, Scarlet Alliance, and other civil society organisations in ongoing attempts to assist the government to develop a more balanced, inclusive, and meaningful approach to online safety. Our efforts to engage, debate, and amplify the voices of the marginalised who are most impacted by these laws has been repeatedly and blatantly ignored by the Australian government.
The circumstances that have led to the closure of Switter are not accidental byproducts of well-intentioned internet policy, but a systematic silencing of the parts of Australian society that the government does not wish to exist. Legislation that threatens online organising is a threat to everyone in civil society, and shows the importance of standing in solidarity with sex workers today to prevent the legislation of tomorrow from affecting even wider sections of the population. As Electronic Frontiers Australia Chair, Justin Warren, frequently reiterates by quoting Stafford Beer: “the purpose of a system is what it does,” and this legislation has progressively silenced the social participation of marginalised groups.
While we are deeply saddened by the loss of Switter, we will not stop fighting for a better, more inclusive, and more safe future for all of us in the digital age. Join us in continuing to fight for digital rights and support a fair online environment that represents the spectrum of Australian life. We need meaningful laws, not stunt bills masked in terms like “safety” that indicate a duty of care that is not being practised by the people who preach it.