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Sex work apps are about more than advertising – they can keep workers safe

Ugly Mugs, a new safety app aimed at sex workers, shows how technology can step in where law enforcement fails.

Matt Haworth was paying a visit to a sex worker charity in Manchester when a brightly coloured bulletin board in the corner caught his eye. It was covered with descriptions of bad punters – those who were abusive with sex workers, or didn’t pay up. “One that really stuck with me was a man who drove around in a Vauxhall, throwing hardboiled eggs at sex workers,” Haworth tells me over the phone, several years after the event. “It preyed on my mind for years. Why did he hardboil them?” 

There are around 80,000 sex workers in the UK, and they’re statistically more likely to be attacked or raped at work than most other groups. Because of their unsure footing in a country where sex work isn’t criminalised, but many related activities like streetwalking or running a brothel are, sex workers are also unlikely to trust the police – and police can be reluctant to help, or keen to clamp down on the profession rather than protect its workers.

The board Haworth saw in Manchester was an analogue version of National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a service run by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects. Now, it protects sex workers from rogue customers via a network of text and email alerts that are tailored to specific regions. The service gave Haworth, who owns a technology company, an idea: what if the sex workers could get these alerts directly to an app, and also use it the app to report back on their own safety?

With his team, Haworth developed the NUM app based on the charity's body of knowledge and feedback from sex workers themeslves. Spreading alerts as quickly as possible is a vital part of the app's offering. As Haworth tells me, the need for it is aptly demonstrated by the case of Thomas Hall, who attacked four sex workers in the course of a single evening in Manchester in 2013. This feature was also inspired by location-based dating apps like Tinder and Grindr. “We wanted to use the same location technology for a very different end,” Haworth tells me.

The app checks incoming numbers with its database of rogue punters, and also features a kind of panic button, which workers can press if they feel unsafe. Again, detail is key: the button feature uses a black background, so the phone doesn’t light up sex workers' faces and attract attention. The button can be used to report bad clients, call the police, or log that the worker felt unsafe so NUM can check in with them later to offer services and support. The app has been tested in Manchester to a positive response, and is currently undergoing a bigger pilot in London. Haworth tells me that the police themselves are supportive of the scheme. 

This would all be moot, of course, if smartphones weren't already part of sex workers' lives  but Haworth found out in focus groups that “many said that the internet and technology were paramount in their work”. Reason Digital, Haworth's company, carried out what he believes is the first dedicated research into sex workers’ smartphone use, and found that somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of sex workers in Manchester use a smartphone. Anecdotally, Haworth found that escorts and “indoor workers” who don’t walk the streets are more likely to use them, partly because “they get bored – there’s lots of waiting around”.

In fact, over the past few years, there has been a rise in technology services marketed specifically to sex workers. German site Peppr was billed earlier this year as the “Tinder for sex work”: workers can advertise their services, and punters can contact them through the app.

Unlike Ugly Mugs, it’s purely for advertising, and isn’t particularly concerned with workers' safety. I asked a customer service representative if the app acts on reports of violence, and was told that the company reserves the right to block any user, but has only done once for a no-show. “It’s amazing how effective linking people to their address and payment card is,” the representative told me.

Image: Peppr

The rise of apps aimed at sex workers isn’t surprising when you consider that sex workers have used online advertising for about as long as the internet has existed. Margaret Corvid, a New Statesman blogger who works as a dominatrix in Plymouth, tells me that she does all her advertising online on sites like Adult Work (she also receives NUM email alerts and reads them “religiously”).

In the early days of the internet, sex workers used directories like Alta Vista to list their services. Some of these have even survived the rise of Google and are still used by some workers, Corvid tells me, “especially in kink”. Many sex workers advertise, or have advertised, on sites like Craigslist or even Facebook, but these companies have become stricter in shutting down sex work advertising.

Craigslist originally ran an "Adult" listings section, but closed it in 2010 under pressure from the public, yet Corvid argues that the ability to advertise and receive payments online actually makes sex work much safer. Clients email her, then she “insists on a phone call with every client” and takes a security deposit via online payment.

In the US, where sex work is still criminalised, major credit card companies are pulling their services from sex work sites, and in doing so, putting sex workers at risk. This is partly because the ability to advertise online means workers can act alone. “You don’t need a manager or a pimp, and you can set your own prices and choose your own clients,” Corvid says.

Apps like Peppr, which automate the transaction, could arguably make this process less safe, however. Their click-and-go business model doesn’t encourage the kind of screening processes Corvid uses, and the app doesn’t pre-screen clients either.

Online booking and advertising also results in a digital paper trail, which, depending on your jurisdiction, can be a good or a bad thing. In the US, where the law is harsher on sex work, a digital footprint can also be a risk for workers and punters alike. In the UK, it may actually make the work safer. “Right now it's a good thing there's a paper trail, because even though it's almost impossible to get the cops to deal with issues of assault and violence against sex workers, there would be at least some records of the punter through the app system which could be obtainable by authorities,” Corvid says. 

Apps and websites, whether they are for safety or advertising, also offer other, less obvious, benefits for sex workers. “Sex work is a historically isolating occupation,” Corvid tells me, “and technology has really changed that.” Technology allows workers to organise politically when needed, or just swap tips – “like ‘Where do I get this specific type of stocking my client asked for?’”

This was one aspect of sex workers' use of technology that surprised Haworth and his team while they were developing the NUM app. At one meeting, Haworth tells me, a male sex worker in his teens asked quietly: “Are you only going to send out bad news? What about good news?” As a result, the team are including news of new support groups and successful convictions of rogue punters in their updates.

Overall, both old-school listings sites and apps aimed specifically at sex workers are empowering a group traditionally maligned by society, the police, and even, on occasion, its own clients. As Haworth tells me, the NUM app is radical because it’s “decentralised – it lets sex workers look out for each other”. Until our more traditional instiutions get their act together in their dealings with sex workers, this will remain incredibly important.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Image: Getty
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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.