At first glance, Red Umbrella Hosting looks like any other web-hosting company. It offers a variety of plans, from basic WordPress installations to fully customized sites with back-end access. Sure, it accepts cryptocurrency, but at this point, who doesn’t?
It’s only when reading the finer print that the political context of Red Umbrella Hosting becomes apparent. Amid the bullet points of its value proposition—”Anonymous,” “Offshore,” “Dedicated Server”—there is one that decidedly stands out: “Sex Worker Friendly.”
Red Umbrella Hosting is a new web host for sex workers, by sex workers. It was launched just this year by Melissa Mariposa, a sex worker who, in her own words, “was tired of the [hosting] options available.” “I saw the need for a more private, offshore hosting service,” she writes in Red Umbrella Hosting’s company bio.
That need took on sudden urgency in 2018 when the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act came into effect. Alternately referred to as SESTA, FOSTA, or both (SESTA/FOSTA), these laws empower federal and state law-enforcement agencies to target websites that supposedly facilitate sex trafficking. But the legislation’s definition of trafficking is so broad that it has also ensnared sex workers who rely on digital platforms for their safety and livelihood. Sites that had previously been used by sex workers to vet clients, such as Backpage, were seized by the federal government; others, like Craigslist’s “Personals” sections, voluntarily shuttered; and now all kinds of online service providers, from social networks to blogging platforms, are booting users suspected of engaging in sex work.
According to sex workers, the ham-handed crackdown on digital platforms could force many of them back onto the streets, into the hands of violent customers, pimps, and police. Red Umbrella Hosting hopes to keep that from happening.
“Why should people lose their years of hard work, years of brand building, marketing?” Mariposa asks in reference to SESTA/FOSTA’s deplatforming sex workers. “Why should people lose the ability to open and run a business with a minimal start-up cost and truly live the American dream—something most people think is dead? I entered this industry on welfare. I completely turned my life around. That is not an atypical experience. Why should other people be denied the opportunities I had?”
In order to preserve those opportunities, Red Umbrella Hosting offers sex workers website hosting under extremely liberal terms of service that only restrict content like child pornography, sex slavery, and beastiality. All of the requirements for set up can be anonymous: alias, e-mail address, and payment in either physical gift cards or cryptocurrency. Should anything happen to Mariposa, who single-handedly manages Red Umbrella Hosting, her users would be safe, as she has no real information about them to divulge. And her server, located in Iceland, is protected by some of the strongest privacy laws in the world—perhaps the best bulwark available against SESTA/FOSTA. Mariposa even assists users with things like data migration, theme design, and contact-form building.
Mariposa began working as a sex worker in western Canada in December of 2008, but has been involved in tech for much longer. “I’ve been building websites since you were getting AOL installers in the mail,” she says. Her work and her hobby met when she started designing, by hand in HTML and CSS, her first website advertising her services. After a stint on WordPress, she decided to collaborate with a developer friend to build her current site in 2017, a process which reignited her interest in technology. It couldn’t have been more prescient.
SESTA/FOSTA was introduced in the Senate on August 1, 2017. The day it passed in the House of Representatives, on February 27, 2018, Mariposa leased Red Umbrella Hosting’s server in Iceland. By the time SESTA/FOSTA was signed into law, on April 11, she already had customers up and running.
While Mariposa declines to go into the specifics of how many customers she’s currently hosting, she does explain that they are diverse. Besides sex workers, models and writers of erotica have also sought her out, as the vagaries of SESTA/FOSTA and service providers’ extreme reactions to it have threatened many different users.
Still, Red Umbrella Hosting is not a cure-all. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding that I’m essentially a hooker GoDaddy when that’s not the case,” says Mariposa, explaining that Red Umbrella Hosting does not provide domain registration or e-mail service.
And in a broader sense, there are other issues that Red Umbrella Hosting cannot solve. “Like with most of the things we have seen post SESTA/FOSTA, the aftermath hits lower-income workers who relied on those free and cheap services, which have disappeared from the web, the hardest,” says Danielle Blunt, a New York City–based dominatrix and sex-worker-rights activist who studies technology. Blunt also points out that the reach of SESTA/FOSTA in targeting sites hosted in Iceland has yet to be tried. Plus, even in the best-case scenario, sex workers are still being forced to abandon their established social-media platforms and websites in the hopes that their customers will follow, and new clients will find, them on their new online homes.
Yet despite the difficulty of this transition, Mariposa sees no alternative.
“If you’re still on WordPress.com or WIX,” she says, addressing other sex workers, “It’s on borrowed time.”