This sex worker-run site is fighting back against SESTA

It's safe, secure, and anonymous, says founder Melissa Mariposa.


Ana Valens


Posted on Apr 3, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 7:48 pm CDT

Late last month, controversial “sex-trafficking” bill SESTA-FOSTA passed in Congress with bipartisan support, meaning websites could now face criminal charges if they “facilitate” sex trafficking. The problem, though, is that the law doesn’t differentiate between sex trafficking and consensual sex work—and, so far, it has mostly put a dent in the latter.

Since SESTA-FOSTA was passed, popular sites like Craigslist and Reddit have pulled their personals sections and shut down discussion boards related to paid sexual services. This, in turn, is robbing sex workers from income, support spaces, and vetting services. In other words, it’s putting both their safety and their livelihood at risk.

But one sex worker is looking to fix these dangers by starting her web-hosting service. Red Umbrella Hosting gives sex workers a “judgment-free alternative to web hosting” that’s inclusive to the trade.

In an interview with the Daily Dot, founder Melissa Mariposa stressed that the organization strives to make sex workers feel safe, secure, and anonymous. To that end, Red Umbrella Hosting does not collect personal data beyond info necessary to “conduct business.” That means the site has no email database, and any information obtained is “never sold or shared with any third party,” according to Red Umbrella’s Terms of Service.

“I decided to set up Red Umbrella Hosting because I am sick of the very people who utilize our services trying to illegalize our existence,” Mariposa told the Daily Dot. “I wanted workers to have a place to turn where they could feel safe. They can secure hosting without having to tie this life to their real identity.”

Mariposa, who is also a university student and web developer on the side, explained that the website was a direct response to SESTA-FOSTA. In her eyes, when the government targets online sex work ads and websites, authorities are simply driving sex workers off the internet.

“If sex workers lose their storefront and safety tools, two things are going to happen,” Mariposa explained. “Number one, the predators will come out to play. Number two, prostitution is going to be pushed right back on the street and in hotel bars by women who will no longer want to see internet clientele and would rather take the risks freelancing. This will create more victims than it helps.”

Red Umbrella Hosting takes a couple steps to protect its clientele. For one, payments are strictly confined to gift cards, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin for now, although the site’s FAQ section says the service plans to provide “offshore credit card processing” some time in the “near future.” Red Umbrella’s servers are also based in Iceland, which Mariposa chose because it does not have a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties for exchanging criminal evidence with the U.S. and has demonstrated a solid handle on “internet privacy and security.”

However, Mariposa believes users should be careful nonetheless. She advises sex workers to stop using TouchID on their phones, move their trade websites outside of the U.S., secure their sites with an SSL certificate, and use a different passphrase for each website password. Mariposa also said users should register a backup domain that isn’t controlled by the U.S. government, pointing out that “.com,” “.net,” .org,” and several other prominent domains are controlled by the American government. And most of all, encrypting all emails and messages is key.

Even those who don’t do sex work for a living could learn a thing or two from Mariposa’s advice. As she pointed out, amending the Communications Decency Act, which is what SESTA-FOSTA does, opens up the internet to further censorship from the U.S. government. While sex workers are being targeted now, other groups could be silenced next.

That means more services like Red Umbrella Hosting will become a necessity sooner rather than later.

“On a grand scale, if this happens, where will the censorship stop?” Mariposa said. “The fact that people are ready to hand over a chunk of their digital rights and freedoms because of the stigma behind sex work is frightening, to put it mildly.”

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*First Published: Apr 3, 2018, 5:30 am CDT