New laws designed to make the internet safer could put sex workers’ lives at risk by pushing them into street-based prostitution, a former chief prosecutor and senior politicians have warned.
Campaigners raised concerns the Online Safety Bill, which became law last October, will lead to online adverts posted by sex workers being removed from platforms, pressuring them into more dangerous situations.
The legislation forces advertising platforms to remove material they judge to be promoting prostitution for gain, with the threat of fines for bosses if they do not comply.
Audrey*, a 29-year-old sex worker, said anxiety about the bill and the cost of living crisis have pushed her into working at a brothel where a pimp takes half of her money and she is at greater risk from customers due to being unable to screen them online.
Nazir Afzal, the ex-chief crown prosecutor for North West England, told The Independent: “The protection of sex workers is not a morality issue, it’s a safeguarding one.”
Mr Afzal, who took on cases involving violence against women and child exploitation while working for the Crown Prosecution Service, added: “Anything that pushes them into more dangerous ways of working is to be avoided. This prohibition on online contact will only drive them further underground and more liable to abuse and exploitation.”
While the bill has already come into force, details about how it will be implemented in practice are still being decided, with UK communications regulator Ofcom currently consulting on the first draft of codes of practice for firms and recently meeting with the Sex Workers’ Union to discuss the rollout.
Senior Labour MP John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, said: “We should not forget the key lesson of past tragedies of incidents of violence against, and cases of murder of, sex workers that anything forcing sex workers back onto the streets is inherently dangerous.”
Street-based sex workers are so much more at risk of receiving harassment or violence, whether from clients or the police
Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International UK’s policy director, also warned the legislation “could make sex work impossible or risky”.
She added: “Sex workers face human rights abuses daily and they are consistently at risk of rape, violence, extortion and discrimination. Far too often they receive no, or very little, protection from the law or means for redress. We should not add another law that disproportionately harms sex workers.”
It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in England, Scotland and Wales, but many activities associated with sex work are against the law, including a prostitute working with another person or a group to stay safe.
Audrey, who has been doing sex work for five years, told The Independent she juggles her shifts at a brothel with work she gets from online prostitution advertising platforms.
She added: “I don’t really want to work in a brothel. I would prefer to work for myself so I don’t have to deal with a pimp taking half of my money or the fact that I don’t have a say over my own working conditions. Yet because of the online safety bill, I feel forced to keep my job in this brothel – just in case the websites that I sell independently on get shut down.
“Out of fear, I feel forced to stay in a criminalised workplace where I have zero rights and the police might come in. I am breaking the law because there is more than one person working from there.”
Obviously women depend on advertising online to screen clients and everyone knows that if clients think they can’t be traced, they are more likely to be abusive or rob women
Audrey, who lives in Bristol, said many of her colleagues have started working in brothels due to the threat of the online safety bill hanging over them.
“Street-based sex workers are so much more at risk of receiving harassment or violence, whether from clients or the police,” she added. “The main driver of people entering sex work is poverty. And to me, the way that sex workers are criminalised seems like a consistent attack on the working class. It’s also patriarchal. It’s 100 per cent misogynistic.”
Andrew Boff, chair of the London Assembly, condemned the online safety bill as an “illegal constraint on a legal business”, arguing sex work will always take place irrespective of whether the government or the public likes it or not.
Mr Boff, a Tory Party member, added: “If it is going to carry on, it should be safe. One of the advantages of getting customers online is you can do routine checks about whether they are a problem customer. There are many checking services.
“All that [checking] goes if your only interest is pushing it underground. The online safety act is very, very dangerous. There are going to be some serious violent implications as sex workers go underground”.
Reports of violence and rape are far more prevalent among street-based sex workers than those who work inside, research has found.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which supports sex workers, said they are getting calls every week from “frightened” sex workers asking for information about the legislation.
“Obviously women depend on advertising online to screen clients and everyone knows that if clients think they can’t be traced, they are more likely to be abusive or rob women. Robbery is a really big problem.”
Sex workers sometimes use messaging groups to pass on information about violent customers. Ms Adams said fear about the legislation is prompting women to censor themselves due to anxiety they could be punished for helping other sex workers.
She noted the term “controlling prostitution for gain”, which the online safety bill explicitly contains, is troublesome due to being vague, warning the only definition that exists is what is used in the criminal courts.
Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP who campaigns for sex workers’ rights, said if sex workers lose the right to advertise online, they could be plunged “into the arms of those who want to exploit or control them”.
“It is vital that the impact of the Online Safety Act on sex workers is reviewed and that any necessary changes are made to help protect them from harm,” she added.
A government spokesperson said: “In-scope online service providers have a legal duty to tackle the harm and exploitation that can be associated with prostitution by swiftly removing illegal content. The act will not prevent people from engaging in lawful activities where there is no exploitation involved.”
However, Audrey explained the “sense of threat” fellow sex workers feel about the legislation is profound. “Every other sex worker I know is also terrified of this bill,” she added.
An Ofcom spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of making sure sex workers can operate safely online, and aren’t driven towards less safe environments. This is something we have considered in our draft guidance on how the new laws should be implemented.”
*Name has been changed