Around 3PM ET on April 17th, Switter — a social media space for sex workers — went offline. Its disappearance, however temporary, indicated the FOSTA-driven loss of yet another haven for sex workers, this time in the form of content distribution network Cloudflare. According to Switter founder Assembly Four, the company received an email from Cloudflare’s legal department indicating that it would be terminating its service due to terms of service violations.
Historically, Cloudflare has been careful about what it bans from its platform. Its most high-profile ban was notorious neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer; at the time, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince told The Verge that “this was my decision, I don’t think it’s Cloudflare’s policy and I think it’s an extremely dangerous decision in a lot of ways.” Under the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), however, companies are acting conservatively to avoid potential litigation. “We’re big fans of helping build better internet,” Cloudflare’s general counsel Doug Kramer tells The Verge. “That’s what we do. We try to make it secure. We try to make it function well. But we also have an obligation to comply with the law.”
FOSTA, signed by President Trump on April 11th, aims to fight sex trafficking by reducing legal protections for online platforms. The conflation of consensual sex work with sex trafficking, as well as the threat of litigation for websites, has already lead to a crackdown on Google Drive, social media, and more. FOSTA is, simply put, “a bad law,” Kramer says, that is spreading a great deal of uncertainty. “We’re trying to figure out how law enforcement is going to apply it,” Kramer says. “We’re trying to figure out what our customers are going to do and operate within that space.”
FOSTA is, simply put, “a bad law”
Assembly Four created Switter on Mastodon recently as a safe place for sex workers to gather as their spaces have been disappearing from the internet. According to Mastodon Network Monitoring, Switter is currently the fifth largest instance with more than 48,000 users. Lola Hunt, an Australian escort working with Assembly Four, told The Verge via email that Cloudflare’s removal is going to increase their costs. “We were working on a plan to move off Cloudflare just in case, but didn’t expect it to happen so soon and without warning, especially given Cloudflare’s previous stances on freedom of speech and privacy,” Hunt says. “We are worried we won’t be the only casualty in the fight for sex workers’ rights to have an online presence, not to mention any other community the US government deems inappropriate.”
Kramer says that Cloudflare fought FOSTA through its legislative process and the company believes there is work to be done even now to amend that law. “The law does not answer fundamental questions about who it is meant to encompass, and whether it’s meant to encompass deep infrastructure companies like Cloudflare,” he says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about the way the law is written, and so it will take some time to figure out the way that the law is being applied and the way that people are reacting to the law for that to become clarified.
“make no mistake, this is a real threat”
“In the meantime we’re making sure that we are doing the best we can to both comply with the law, which we are in obligation to do, but also making sure that the internet can function as well as it has through history. But make no mistake, this is a real threat to the ability of the internet to continue to function the way that it has throughout history.”
It’s worth noting that in a post last year following the Daily Stormer’s ban, Prince wrote that “without a clear framework as a guide for content regulation, a small number of companies will largely determine what can and cannot be online.” According to Prince, “it may be that if you’re going to put content on the Internet you’ll need to use a company with a giant network like Cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, or Alibaba.”
Kramer says when and if FOSTA is clarified, it’s possible that Cloudflare may update its current approach, including reversing Switter’s ban. For now, Switter has moved to another CDN provider, though Assembly Four has declined to share details in the interest of not having to move again. “Switter, for many people, has become their main point of contact for communication between them and other workers as well as them and clients,” Hunt tells The Verge. “Especially after the closure of [Backpage] we saw a rise in member sign ups. Many people looking for a platform which won’t boot them off for how they make a living.”