Last week, an online community for sex workers disappeared from the Internet. Visit SFRedbook.com, MyPinkBook.com, or MyRedBook.com right now, and you’ll only find the seals of the law enforcement agencies—the FBI, the DOJ, and the IRS—that seized the sites as part of a prostitution and money laundering investigation.
The seizure is part of a disturbing trend of targeting sex workers, but more than that, it is an attack on the rights to free speech and free association exercised by a diverse group of people, many of whom have nothing to do with the alleged crimes.
MyRedBook and its companion sites served a large and diverse community of sex workers. The sites functioned as social media platforms, with discussion boards for users in topics from politics to financial tips. It also served as a resource guide with information ranging from explanations of the law as it pertains to sex work to health information. For archived versions of the forums sex workers no longer have access to, click here.
These sites were essential tools for First Amendment protected speech and association—especially important for a community that values its privacy for a variety of legitimate reasons. This platform has been pulled out from under the feet of this community. As the Bay Area Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) said in a statement:
Today we also lost extensive online forums for a community of sex workers to keep each other safe, screen clients, and blacklist predators. Myredbook also hosted resource guides for sex workers who were struggling and created a venue for community counseling for those in need. Many local outreach organizations used this forum to connect with vulnerable sex workers.
To compound the destruction of this indispensible forum, the users of these sites now have cause to worry that their private information, such as IP addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses, may be in the hands of the FBI. In fact, news reports specifically note: “[FBI]Agents seized several boxes of evidence … including business documents and computer hardware.”
SWOP spokesperson Kristina Dolgin put it mildly when she said, “It’s a very scary thing.”
EFF has always supported freedom of association and free speech, no matter who is doing the talking. In fact, these rights are especially important for controversial groups. That’s why we are so concerned to see these sites shut down—especially on the heels of the bank account closures of sex workers nationwide.
It’s true that in many states, some forms of sex work are illegal. But sex workers have First Amendment rights to speak out about the issues that concern them, to advocate for changes in the law, to counsel each other, to discuss the issues that are important to them, and to advertise legally permissible services. And sex workers have First Amendment rights to associate with each other on Internet forums and elsewhere.
As society changes, its values and laws change as well. But the oppression of disfavored groups uses the same tactics. Today, sex workers are being oppressed, but it will be a different group tomorrow. When we allow any group to be silenced and targeted, we are paving the way for it to happen again.
EFF is keeping an eye on what happens in the case, and the ripple effect in the sex worker community as the criminal charges associated with this seizure move forward. In the meantime, we’ve compiled a list of resources and strategies sex workers can use to protect their anonymity.