Sex work industry groups say they’ve been forced to withdraw from the Australian government’s consultation process on introducing age verification for online porn, after a meeting was cut short so a government agency could speak about itself.
An email exchange seen by VICE between the office of the eSafety Commissioner and Assembly Four, a collective of sex workers and technologists that founded the recently-shuttered Switter, shows that one age verification roundtable hosted by the government agency was used almost entirely to outline the function of the eSafety office. It left no time for the groups who were invited to consult on the topic at hand.
Eliza Sorensen, co-founder of Assembly Four, said the move goes to show that the Australian government’s approach to online safety legislation “has enabled the voices of big tech and organisations based overseas to dominate and control the conversation.”
“As we and others have raised previously in our submissions, and through other channels, there has been a blatant disregard for the limited resources and time that Australian startups and small businesses have to dedicate and provide critical feedback to the concurrent consultations,” Sorensen wrote in an email to the office of the eSafety Commissioner.
“Between the Social Media Inquiry and the Religious Discrimination Bill there is no denying or debating that the LGBTQIA+ community are under attack and actively excluded from having a real say – there is a difference between consultation and actually being listened to.”
The eSafety Commissioner's office replied to the withdrawal, and defended cutting Assembly Four’s time slot short.
“We felt it was important to provide participants with context to the roadmap and the opportunity to ask questions about other elements of eSafety’s work, but we appreciate your comments about the balance of time afforded for subsequent discussion. We will consider your feedback in our planning for future sessions,” the eSafety Commissioner’s office wrote.
In response to questions from VICE, a spokesperson for the Office of the eSafety Commissioner said it “values contributions from all stakeholders” throughout its consultation process for the Age Verification roadmap.
“eSafety’s interest is in getting the broadest array of perspectives to inform the work of this roadmap and, as noted in the email correspondence, if at any point the organisation would like to re-engage with eSafety and the consultation process, they are welcome to do so,” they said.
The email exchange arrives less than a week after a tranche of documents revealed that the Office of the eSafety Commissioner had been working with the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) to expand trials of age verification technology – currently limited to online gambling and purchases of alcohol online – to all porn websites for Australian users.
As it stands, both Australian government agencies reportedly involved in the trials denied the trials were even underway. A spokesperson for the DTA denied the agency’s involvement in anything described in the documents, telling VICE the agency “is not pursuing any trials of age verification.”
Over at the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, it was suggested the agency wasn’t “involved in any age verification trials relating to pornography” but had commissioned a “roadmap” for trials similar to those described in documents obtained by The Canberra Times, in response to recommendations made by a parliamentary committee in 2020.
Sex workers looking to work online have faced difficulties at just about every turn since the “creator economy” first emerged. Now, there is growing concern among sex workers that digital age verification will drive clients away and once again target a minority group who relies heavily on the internet to make a living.
Sai Jaiden Lillith, an independent sex worker based in Melbourne, uses social media platforms to advertise and promote their business. They told VICE that modern verification technologies will provide needless hoops for potential clientele to jump through, leading to a loss of work and income.
“You might see a loss of people who are willing to spend the money – especially with online workers,” Lillith said. “Those people might be driven to go: ‘Well, fuck it. I can just pirate my porn then. I don't have to deal with this’. It's hard enough to get people to pay for their content already.”
According to Lillith, the addition of blanket policies across platforms means sex workers again face the sting of public stigmatisation, increasing the view that their work is inherently harmful.
“The phrasing they're using is ‘exposure to adult content’ – as if we're out there pushing porn to [those who are] underage. We're not. People have to actively search for something to find it online. That kind of restrictive attitude definitely contributes to stigma,” Lillith said.
The Australian government isn’t alone in its pursuit of building an age verification framework to stop children from watching porn.
On Tuesday last week, the UK announced that it will forge ahead with a similar plan, introducing amendments to its contentious Online Safety Bill to bring commercial porn sites – spanning user-generated platforms, like OnlyFans, and more common “tube” sites – within the bill’s scope.
Age verification technologies themselves have proven unreliable in the past, and have been known to be less accurate when used on the faces of women, non-binary people, and people of colour. Gala Vanting, a spokesperson for Australia’s peak sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance, added that the technologies themselves are also easily circumnavigable with a VPN.
“I think that a big part of the problem is that there is a lot of meaninglessness to the technology because it is fallible,” Vanting told VICE, “And I feel like what's actually being expressed here is that sex worker livelihoods are an acceptable sacrifice, for the optics of addressing online harm.”
“If age verification for online pornography is produced in Australia, what you will find is sex workers finding it harder to make ends meet.”
Vanting says that rather than taking a “punitive parenting approach” to online safety legislation that mounts a broad-based policy framework in the face of all internet users, the office of the eSafety Commissioner should work to improve media literacy among kids.
“Sex workers already take a lot of steps to ensure that our services and our content are not provided to people under the age of 18. We're really invested in that it's really important to us,” Vanting said.
“And we have provided to the eSafety Commissioner a wide range of evidence of a wide range of practices that sex workers currently employ to keep pornography out of the hands of people under 18,” she said.
“The introduction of something this invasive is disproportionate to the, quote-unquote, problem.”
Update: This story was updated shortly after publication to include comments from the Office of the eSafety Commissioner in the ninth paragraph.
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