Sex Worker Data Spaces

Authors: Violeta Mezeklieva, Lena Chen

The purpose of the EU Data Strategy is to create an infrastructure across the EU where data is shared and used by putting the interest of the individual first; and thus create a data economy that allows everyone “to make better decisions.”

The EU’s data economy will be built off of data spaces where companies, civil society and individuals are part of the same ecosystem, and are stakeholders of the products and services that are built from the data that is shared. However, there are eight barriers exposed by the Strategy which prevent the EU from building a data economy. One barrier is the inability of individuals to exercise their rights granted by GDPR and ePrivacy legislation because there is an “absence of technical tools and standards” that are straightforward and simple to use. The Strategy explains there are organisations that, from the ground-up, have advocated and created tools to help individuals exercise these rights at the granular level – one of them being personal data cooperatives or trusts that act as “novel neutral intermediaries” in the personal data economy. 

The Strategy mentions these are still “in their infancy” but have “significant potential”. For this exact reason, we want to design a prototype of a data space/ cooperative/ trust/ union that explores how communities can build, from the ground-up their data spaces, and act as a union where they have a right to dictate how data about them will be shared and used in their ecosystem. 

The prototype of our Data Space will be focussed on sex workers because they have historically faced discrimination, unfair practices, and lock-in effects caused by on- and offline policies. We believe that if we design a prototype that follows the EU regulation, infrastructure, and networks, it will have the power to influence the formation of data spaces worldwide in a similar pattern.

Understanding our focus group

Sex work encompasses a range of occupational activities including phone sex, webcamming, pornography, escorting, and fetish or domination services. Images of sex workers proliferate in art and popular culture, yet as with other marginalized groups, sex workers are subjected to public, academic, and legal scrutiny while rarely given the opportunity for self-representation. 

Since 2018 when the USA passed the FOSTA/SESTA legislation, sex workers globally have been systematically marginalized by mainstream social media and payment processors while increasingly becoming the subject of surveillance through facial recognition and data-scraping software. Numerous sites, including Craiglists Personals, Backpage, Reddit and Tumblr pages, have shut down, affecting users at large as well as sex workers who have lost access to clients and peer support communities. Microsoft can now monitor Skype and Xbox activities to prevent law language and inappropriate content. Sex workers have become victims of the content moderation algorithm, which disproportionately harms people who are already at greater risk of violence and incarceration. For example, sex workers using aliases can lose access to social media, because of not using their real name. (See Facebook’s controversial “real name” policy). This same issue can affect the public at large (e.g. trans people who have undergone a gender change, victims of stalking, and even artists who have alternate identities). More recently, the EARN IT Act introduced on March 5, 2020 in the US Congress would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and threaten end-to-end encryption by requiring all communication services to allow “backdoor“ government access.

Online communities allow sex workers to share resources and digital harm reduction strategies, therefore reducing the likelihood of violence. Cutting sex workers off from such support only further exposes them to danger by forcing them to work in isolation. The above policies, enacted under the guise of preventing sex trafficking, actually pushes trafficking activities offline or to overseas sites, which are harder to monitor. The massive censorship and chilling effects from the policing of online sex work have threatened not only the rights of sex workers but also that of activists, journalists, and the general public.

As technology evolves, so will sex work. Because technologists often have built-in biases reflected in the creation of algorithms and content moderation policies, we must listen to sex workers who are actually impacted to understand their lived experience. In focus groups and workshops, we will engage sex workers in discussions about their experiences with using popular Internet platforms and facilitate a visioning of a more democratic digital world. In pursuit of a truly safe and inclusive Internet, we propose a Data Space for sex workers offering them have meaningful power over their own narratives and representation in the development of data policy.

The basics of our Prototype

Given the timeline we could not create a Data Space in the form of an organisation. We opted to create a game through which we can show the impact of creating policies that discriminate against sex workers, and engage people into considering joining a Data Space through which they can advocate for their data rights to influence policy.

Only Bans, is a choose-your-own-adventure game exploring the Internet from the perspective of sex workers. Incorporating poetry, sound, and video performance, Only Bans educates the public on the intersection of sex workers’ rights and digital civil liberties. The audience plays the character of a newbie sex worker establishing their online brand and dreaming of lucrative paydays while living in fear of cyber creeps and account deletion by Big Tech platforms. As the character attempts to evade being censored by Instagram and flagged by Paypal, the game reveals just how “free” the Internet really is when you are engaged in stigmatized labor subject to policing and criminalization. For the purpose of this residency, we will complete a text-only prototype of the storyline using Twine.

Please follow this link to play OnlyBans:


Perceptions of Sex Trafficking Legislation by Sex Workers:

The Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe:

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