Bettie Bondage, a queer Puerto Rican dominatrix, had her Facebook and Instagram accounts suspended more than half a dozen times this past year. Gender queer Filipinx educator, activist, and sex worker Mia Little had their Instagram permanently disabled twice without notice last year. For many adult industry entertainers, artists, and activists, losing access to these large social networks has become increasingly common.
In 1996, Congress established the “Internet’s First Amendment,” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provided the magic words that allowed the Internet to grow and thrive over the past two decades: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
On the first of this year, that clause got some troubling updates, which have already begun to shift our relationship to the world wide web. Thanks to federal legislation known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act in the Senate and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in the House (SESTA/FOSTA, for short) U.S. policy regarding online speech now includes language about “vigorous enforcement of criminal laws to deter and punish crimes” related to obscenity, stalking, harassment, and trafficking — and puts the responsibility on the platform that publishes it.
Now, Facebook has gone so far as to explicitly outline its supremely staunch position on the use of “suggestive emojis” to solicit sexual communication — which means the days of using cartoon eggplants and peaches in your thirst trap mirror selfies are most likely numbered. Instagram representative Stephanie Otway clarified in an email that the company is taking action only on emojis “used alongside an implicit or indirect ask for nude imagery, sex or sexual partners, or sex chat conversations.”
As the “Community Guidelines” document has evolved, some of the people who depend on the internet for survival suffer. Sex workers have lost the lions share of their advertising and screening options in the past year, as many sites that catered to the community simply shuttered when SESTA/FOSTA became law. Remaining visible has been a challenge due to a massive chilling of online speech related to all forms of sex, sexuality, and sexual health, along with a culture of community policing, that has resulted in bodies and stories that are already at the margins being further excluded, harassed, and silenced.
In response, the adult industry has focused on creating and investing in its own platforms that allow users to share content and build community. Adult Video News, which could be considered “the Academy” of porn, recently launched a social network that has similar functionality to Twitter, but also provides a way for performers to charge money for access to their explicit content. Similar sites like FanCentro and OnlyFans are thriving, and even the tube site monolith, PornHub, is now primarily a social interface.
Adult industry entrepreneur and former escort Lydia Dupra, who created a social network for women in 2017 called Heaux, has embraced her role as a publisher, and maintains her app’s strict anti-cyberbullying and anti-nudity policy by regularly removing accounts that display a pattern of solicitation or harassment. She drives traffic to her app and ecommerce store primarily through mainstream social media platforms, and has had her share of troubles with deleted content and accounts. Still, Dupra maintains that adult entertainers and entrepreneurs can manage to advertise their goods and services on mainstream platforms, so long as they stay vigilant and informed about the legal landscape and how it may affect their contract with the platform. She points out that PornHub has over 8 million followers on Instagram and has managed to maintain an active account for years — thanks, most likely, in part, to a team of legal experts that help keep them compliant. These giant platforms reward only those clever and connected enough to follow the convoluted and constantly shifting terms of service with access to a deep well of free advertising that would be simply out of reach for most new business owners. Dupra considers it a fair trade.
But the strategy of further privatizing the internet seems an unsatisfactory, and most likely unsustainable, solution to this existential crisis of free speech. The first amendment is more “American” than a baseball baked inside of an apple pie, but it simply does not apply to private companies. Online speech may soon only exist on platforms owned by private companies who have the power to silence whomever they wish.
We may be entering an era where the Internet is no longer an interconnected web of information, but rather a landscape of private fiefdoms empowered to exclude those they deem unworthy, or worse, a law enforcement mechanism used to deter and punish — definitely not the 1996-vision of the internet’s potential.
The solution is not as simple as just deleting Facebook. We have to insist on policies that nurture the internet’s growth, and hold those in power accountable when they restrict speech and access in a way that force bodies and stories that are already at the margins of society of being further excluded, harassed, and silenced.
The internet has connected, enchanted, and changed us in a way that few things have in the course of human history. It is a vast and powerful resource and we must do all that we can to ensure it is not controlled and exploited by those that thirst for wealth and power, so that future generations will have an online landscape that values preservation and development more than punishment and deterrence.