The curious case of RedBook and how disruptive technology could transform the sex trade

In April of this year, Donald Trump signed a controversial bill to shut down websites that facilitate prostitution. While the reforms may curb sex trafficking, critics claim the sites offered sex workers a relative degree of safety and fear their demise will only benefit the pimps they had tried to avoid. But could the rapid advancement of technology provide another solution? Here, the leading technology journalist and author, Ryan Weeks, discusses disruptive technology and how an ‘Uber for the sex trade’ could transform the world’s oldest profession.

By Ryan Weeks

In the San Francisco Bay area in 1999, an unusual website by the name of RedBook (myRedBook.com) was born.

It began as an online discussion forum for punters, but the site soon morphed into an organ for advertisement, match making, rating and many more of the processes demanded by the sex trade.

It offered sex workers a measure of safety in so much as they were able, to an extent, to vet their customers. It also offered discretion, pulling workers off the streets and into the shadowy confines of the World Wide Web.

RedBook existed at the heart of West Coast prostitution right up until early 2014, when its founder Eric ‘Red’ Omuro was arrested on various charges, including racketeering and money laundering – but not before having pulled in over $5 million in profits.

The machinery had lacked a certain level of sophistication. A Wired article on its rise and fall says the site’s ‘ugly, bare-bones design was straight out of the early 2000s’. But the site had also lacked what some might describe as ‘Uberisation’. More on that later.

RedBook is by no means the only website to have ever attempted to connect prostitutes and punters online. Another is Backpage, a site where users could post advertisements for sexual services.

In the US, all sites of this nature are currently under threat thanks to a bill signed into law by Donald Trump in April of this year. The bill, commonly referred to as FOSTA, is a mixture of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).

At a glance, both sound eminently sensible – the logic being that the online facilitation of prostitution makes life easier for sex traffickers.

Yet large swathes of the sex industry in America have reacted in horror to the new laws (which may not take full effect until as late as January 2019).

In April, an organiser of a counter-movement (Survivors Against SESTA) told Vice assistant editor Samantha Cole that the new laws were a life-or-death threat for sex workers. Here’s the quote in full: “I know so many people who were able to start working indoors or leave their exploitative situations because of Backpage and Craigslist,” she said. “They were able to screen for clients and keep themselves safe and save up money to leave the people exploiting them. And now that those sites are down, people are going back to pimps. Pimps are texting providers every day saying ‘the game’s changed. You need me.’”

In the months that followed their enactment, a spate of campaigns, marches and protests were arranged in opposition to FOSTA/SESTA, including a ‘New Orleans-style funeral procession’ in May that was dubbed a ‘Funeral for the Death of Sex Work’.

Ryan Weeks

The basic argument of the protestors is that while the reforms may curb trafficking, they will place prostitutes in mortal peril, stripping them of the power to be discerning, and forcing them back into the thrall of pimps.

Ultimately, however, websites like Backpage and Craigslist could be more… well, modern. Backpage was born in 2004. Craigslist was founded in 1995. Like RedBook, they are surely constrained by legacy technology – in the same way that major banks, for example, are today.

What would happen if a truly cutting-edge, mobile-optimised disruptor were to enter the sex trade – an ‘Uber for prostitution’? Well, like the websites before it, it would allow sex workers to be discerning: to review and to vet their customers. But unlike those websites, their lewd advertisements would no longer be static. Matchmakings would be facilitated in a timely and dynamic fashion, bringing vendors and customers together at the exact point of need.

Without doubt, such an app would carry with it the same trafficking risks – but with truly cutting-edge technology, they would surely stand a better chance of rooting out such activity.

Modern-day app-based disruptors are all about data, and their ability to apply modern techniques to interpreting and leveraging the data they collate on customers leads to improved user experiences, bespoke recommendations, and to a fuller understanding of user activity.

An app user’s location and identity will always be known, whereas a website user is harder to track. Yet another reason why such an app might improve user safety.

Of course, an app like this could only exist were either Apple or Android to allow it, or else it could exist only as a website.

But if you think the whole idea sounds farcical, look no further than Ohlala, described in a VIX article as the ‘Uber for Sexcapades’. Last month, it was reported in EU-Startups that the app is sizing up a $100m fundraise, via an Initial Coin Offering (ICO), to take its services to the US….

Filling a FOSTA/SESTA-sized void, perhaps?

My first novel, Pimple, is the tale of a sex-trade disruptor rising to prominence in London and explores its impact on the lives of the city’s prostitutes, pimps and punters.

Ryan Weeks is the editor of AltFi.com, one of the leading news and intelligence resources for ‘fintech’ (financial technology) in the UK. His new novel, Pimple, explores the dramatic consequences of technological disruption. It is out now through Amazon UK priced £10.99 in paperback and 99p in ebook.

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