When President Trump last year passed anti-trafficking legislation that led to the erasure of online resources sex workers relied on to discuss violent clients, sex workers feared for their safety and fought back.
The erasure of these online spaces for the community have continued to proliferate the web, and now, due to a new permissions policy from Google, a safety resource used by sex workers in Ireland and the UK is at risk of being broken or removed from the Google Play app store.
Google detailed the policy change in January “reminder” to developers, which stated that any apps that require SMS or Call Log permission will be removed from the Play store unless they have successfully applied to be exempt from the new policy, which was first announced in October. Developers eligible for exception include those who were already using the permissions before Google announced the policy change. Google gave these developers 90 days to file a form proving that their app’s “core functionality” hinges on access to call log or SMS permissions.
Ugly Mugs is a free Android app available to sex workers in Ireland and the UK. It lets users discuss potentially dangerous clients with each other, builds a database of those who might be abusive, and screens calls and texts from numbers that might match people found in the database.
Ugly Mugs has over 1,000 installs, according to the Google Play Store, and Lucy Smyth, the director of Safe IQ, the company behind Ugly Mugs, told Android Authority that the website and mobile apps have about 7,000 users a year. Android Authority reported on Monday that Ugly Mugs’ application for an exception from Google’s new permissions policy was rejected.
“So basically Google wrote to us in November and told us we have to remove the call screening features of our app, and we’d have to apply for an exception if we wanted to keep them,” Smyth told Android Authority. “We did apply for an exception and just last week they refused our exception.” Smyth added that she believed the first application wasn’t reviewed and rejected by a human, but instead through an automated system.
Smyth told Gizmodo in an email on Wednesday that Google Play Dev invited the Safe IQ team to apply for another exception on Tuesday, which they did, but their application was again rejected. She said that this time, though, “the refusal was prompt and meaningful, suggesting a small change to our app.” She added that they are going to incorporate the suggested changes and apply again this week.
“We are cautiously hopeful that following us making this small change requested Google will allow us an exception,” Smyth said. “It is really important for the safety of our members that they can get our automatic alerts about dangers.” Smyth also highlighted a number of reviews on the Google Play Store and the company’s Twitter feed from users who depend on the app. If Google again rejects Ugly Mugs’ application for an exception, it will be removed from the Play store on March 9.
When reached for comment on whether a human reviewed the first application and if the company will reconsider its decision, a Google spokesperson referred Gizmodo to the blog post detailing the company’s policy change.
“In Ireland, the situation is that sex workers are criminalized under what’s called brothel keeping laws, which means that in order to work legally, sex workers must work alone,” a Safe IQ representative told Android Authority. “So they’re not allowed to have a friend for safety, and so that makes them targeted by offenders, as it’s known that someone who is doing sex work must always work alone.”
Sex workers have voiced how vital it is to have trustworthy online resources to vet clients and protect themselves from abuse, which affords them more autonomy in their work. Misguided legislation, the increasing sanitization of the internet, and in this case, a simple app policy change, endanger the lives of sex workers and put their safety at the whim of tech companies who have yet to prove they are carefully considering some of their most vulnerable users.