Last week, Australian sex worker, Sai Jaiden Lillith, woke up to find that their Linktree had disappeared. Linktree is an online service that allows users to link out to other platforms through their social media bios, an important tool for the business models of sex workers. For Lillith, this was a big deal.
Despite being a paid subscriber to LinkTree’s “premium” model, Lillith logged on to find that their account had been blocked, and, surprised, sent an email to tech support to fix the problem. It was only after they saw that a number of other sex workers had been booted from the platform that they realised this probably wasn’t a tech glitch.
On Tuesday, Linktree removed a number of accounts, including Lillith’s, in an effort to follow their community standard guidelines that disallow links from facilitating real-life sexual services - an element of sex work still illegal under most U.S. law.
In Australia, however, sex work is federally recognised as a legal profession and regulated by jurisdiction. There is at least some form of legal sex work available in most states.
“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised,” Lillith told VICE. “This just happens across a variety of platforms all the time. I understand that technically they are under US jurisdiction. But nothing I’m doing is illegal.”
“It's fairly typical for a lack of respect for sex workers from tech companies like this.”
Founded in 2016, Linktree is a company established and headquartered in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. Yet despite this, the multi-million dollar company abides by a community standard that recognises “prostitution” is still illegal in many countries.
“This is in no way a targeted effort against sex workers,” Head of Trust & Safety at Linktree, Marlene Bonnelly, told VICE. “We’re constantly trying to find anything that violates our community standards to make sure that the platform aligns with those standards and is as safe as possible for users around the world.”
“One of the primary issues is that we have a very big US audience. And there is legislation there that makes us very vulnerable to incidents of having users advertise an exchange of money for real life sexual services.”
Despite Linktree’s efforts to keep the wider community safe, sex worker Penny Black says it does the opposite for anyone working in the industry. Instead, Black argues, the erasure of sex workers from platforms like Linktree works against efforts to decriminalise and promote harm reduction practices.
“Claiming to be combatting ‘illegal’ sex work through deplatforming us does little to achieve this goal and instead exposes us to more vulnerability,” Black told VICE. “If you take away our ways to earn an income and talk to each other, you make our work less safe.”
“This practice also does little to dissuade us from doing sex work and using online platforms. This is a result of bad laws that criminalise sex work in the US, but that impact sex workers everywhere, including in Australia where we have different laws.”
For both Lillith and Penny Black, the removal of Linktree, which provides a one-stop format for their various links and advertisements, dramatically reduces the stream of clientele.
“It does fuck with my connectivity,” said Lillith. “All the pages where I’ve put a Linktree are just not going to go anywhere. It’s going to make me harder to find. So I’ve lost all the traffic that was there.”
One byproduct of lost traffic for sex workers like Lillith and Penny Black is a loss of income.
“Sex work is my only income stream and work has been up and down since COVID first started,” Black explained.
“Being deplatformed not only highlights the kind of discrimination we routinely face, but also the cruelty involved.”
“Right now we are all experiencing increased financial hardship, not just us sex workers, and this move increases my income insecurity.”
Despite an uproar from sex workers in Australia, PR and Communications Lead for Linktree, Nadav Avidan, told VICE that the removal is not one related to morals. Instead, he said it should be framed as a question of “legal versus illegal.”
“It is not a moral stance. And to me personally – regardless of my title, or me working for Linktree – this narrative of Linktree banning sex workers is actually harming those who use us as part of their livelihood,” he told VICE. “It confuses people about what it is that they can do or can't do, when 99.9 per cent of them are absolutely fine.”
Large online companies deplatforming sex workers is not new, and in many cases can be tied to 2018, when then-President Donald Trump instated the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), two separate legislations working together to make platforms liable for content that advertise sex work.
In the years after, countless sex workers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram found their accounts shadowbanned or removed in a new wave that they titled “digital gentrification”.
For Australian workers, the tie of global social media companies to US law has meant removal even when their work was not illegal.
“This is just part of a wider wave of deplatforming of sex workers across the board,” Gala Vanting, National Programs Manager of Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s national peak sex worker organisation, told VICE.
“Since 2018, with the passage of FOSTA-SESTA in the United States, workers across the globe, including in Australia, have been losing access to our digital assets, our digital accounts, our digital citizenship, and a lot of the tools that we use to stay safe at work,” they explained.
“I think it's also part of a general trend of gentrification of digital space in a way that actually creates harm, and does harm to sex workers.”
“Which is ironic, because sex workers generally tend to make internet businesses a lot of money and then get dumped.”
Sex work organisations in Australia have been advocating for tech companies to work in accordance with local laws and culture for years, and many hope to sway recent legislation that may counteract sex worker’s participation on social media platforms in the future. One of those is the Online Safety Act of 2021 - Scott Morrison’s attempt at creating safer guidelines for internet use.
With Linktree not likely to back down, though, this latest deplatforming is just another incident in a long stream of difficulties for Australian sex workers.
“Multinational tech companies must be regulated in a way that is consistent with the laws where they operate,” Vanting said.
“You can’t have a one-size fits all approach to sex work, because each country handles it differently. In Australia, it’s a legal profession.”
Read more from VICE Australia.