EDITORIAL NOTE: This piece is long because it reiterates important information from prior posts published over the last several months. For those of you who haven’t the time or patience to read this in one sitting, you can use the following mini-Table Of Contents to jump to the subsections of this post:

  1. FetLife is selling your sex life to the world
  2. Robots with conscience: FetLife Warning Buoys share privacy tips
  3. Did FetLife ask for the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA)’s consent before abusing it?
  4. Important safety information and tips for protecting your privacy

Like all other social networks, what makes FetLife.com great is the personal connections you can make there. Sharing personal information about yourself on social networks, like your favorite books, your opinions on the interesting conversation you had at a dinner party, or the joke your boss shared over drinks, is what makes such networks valuable. After all, it’s what makes them social.

FetLife is selling your sex life to the world

Unlike many other social networks, however, the information on FetLife is mostly about sex. It’s not your favorite book, it’s your favorite sex position. It’s not an interesting dinner conversation, it’s a secret fantasy you had since you were little. It’s not a joke your boss shared over drinks, it’s the gossip between your past and current sexual partners.

This stuff is really personal. And it’s important to take that really seriously. If you don’t, it becomes far too easy for a fuming ex-partner, an obsessive fan, or any other individual with a grudge against you to learn more than you want them to know.

Before FetLife, it was easy for someone with even a modicum of Internet savvy to learn your home address, employment history, and favorite hobbies. After FetLife, it’s easy for that same tech-savvy person to learn how you like to orgasm, when you’ve done so, and with whom.

HOLY SOCIAL ENGINEERING GOLDMINE, BATMAN!

Unfortunately, assaults and harassment enabled by the easy availability of such information are not uncommon. Such crimes happen far too often, and my inbox alone contains numerous messages from frightened people who want to use FetLife but don’t know how to protect themselves from other users. These are messages from people who have been abused and, in some cases, physically and sexually assaulted.

The day I stop receiving anxious emails like that can not come too soon.

But sex-focused social networking giants like FetLife currently make no meaningful effort to offer ways to protect your personal information. In stark contrast to sites like Facebook and Google+, there are very few, largely ineffective options for sharing your postings only with people you choose, rather than the entire network. Infuriatingly, it’s become ever more apparent that this isn’t a mistake or an oversight. It’s the intentional design of their system.

FetLife doesn’t want you to think twice before you post a naked photo of yourself because, if you did, it’d be harder for the company to convince other users to pay a premium to see more of those naked photos. That, in and of itself, is merely callously corporate capitalism. But it gets worse.

Rather than offer privacy features that their own user base have been requesting for the better part of a year (and that I’ve been writing about the importance of for far longer than that), FetLife actively censors the web postings of its users who have experienced sexual assault from other users, apparently spends the majority of its development efforts on features that further degrade the privacy of its users, and considers privacy concerns “unfounded,” all while purporting to be a safe place to be sexually vocal online.

That’s exploitative.

Robots with conscience: FetLife Warning Buoys share privacy tips

Several weeks ago, I created a robot (a “friendly FetLife warning buoy”) lovingly named Tarchannen III, which sent messages to FetLife users containing privacy information that FetLife’s staff of volunteer “Greeters” fail to mention and routinely obscure. The robot was able to send messages to at least several hundred users before the FetLife staff found and banned the account. In response, I created dozens new FetLife sock puppet accounts and set the robot to use those. A fleet of warning buoys now sends invaluable privacy information to FetLife users, particularly new signups.

From FetLife’s point of view, however, that’s bad for business. “We take your safety seriously, but spamming is definitely not cool,” they say:

Screenshot of FetLife Twitter account saying 'We take your safety seriously, but spamming is definitely not cool.'

Of course, if FetLife actually took your safety seriously, they’d not obscure privacy issues, they’d stop protecting rapists by censoring assault survivors, and they’d stop exploiting technical ignorance for commercial gain.

So every couple of days, FetLife bans a new batch of warning buoy accounts. Every couple of days, a new batch of FetLife sock puppet accounts (“warning buoys”) is created and launched. The game is cat-and-mouse, and the goal is to get important safety and privacy information to FetLife’s users before FetLife shoots down the buoys. The buoys communicate with each other to ensure each FetLife user is sent one and only one message regardless of which buoy initially contacted them—a most unusual behavior for “spam.”

From the point of view of FetLife users the messages are largely welcomed. Here are some (anonymized) responses that the “Tarchannen III” FetLife warning buoy received before getting shot down.

Some users wrote of their familiarity with these very issues, causing them to disengage from the (toxic) mainstream BDSM Scene that FetLife serves:

Hey, thanks for that! Glad you’re doing this.

I no longer hang out on FL or have any interest in associating with the kink ‘community’ because doing so violates my rules for staying safe, for much the reasoning given in your message. But I do appreciate that you & whoever else are doing something about making the kink ‘community’ more what it says it is. Maybe I’ll come back some day if/when it stops being a covertly (but gigantic) abuse-enabling structure […]

But, again, big thanks to you for doing something. :D

Some responded noting they’ve had first-hand experience with FetLife’s corruption:

I am aware of all of this ( and more ) related to the insecurity of Fetlife.

I have […] witnessed firsthand theissues surrounding mis-handling of Fetlife members in violation of Fetlife policy.

With that said, thanks fo rthe message and I hope that you meet with more positive responses like mine instead of more “knee jerk” negative reactions from those less informed.

Ciao.

A few users neither seemed to understand (or possibly even read) the buoy’s message, nor did they seem to understand what the buoy actually was (an automated robot):

Thank you for your mail but I like fetlife just the way it is. Anyone suffering from rape or abuse should be taking it to the proper authorities not the fetlife forums. I still believe in innocent until PROVEN guilty

I really don’t appreciate this email promoting your agenda couched in some sort of “safety” message. I believe in the privacy of others. That’s why i’m on this site.

Please consider me OFF your mailing list

Quite a number of other users responded with extremely encouraging replies, such as these two:

Really well done. I hope you’re sending this to everyone, whoever you are.

I don’t know who you are, but I support this message. Fetlife is practically deceitful in the level of legal privity users are provided, and anyone talking out is doing a good thing.

And numerous users just sent a short thank you, such as the user who simply wrote:

Thank you for sending this.

But, to FetLife, the messages these folks are responding to and the information contained in them are “spam.” The privacy information is not worth including in FetLife Greeters’ welcome messages to new users—messages that are sent once to each new user who signs up, much like Tarchanenn III’s own behavior.

FetLife has once again made their intention clear: obscure privacy issues from you, silence sexual assault survivors, and make sure conversations about consent and safety do not rise to a level of awareness dangerous to the company’s public image, or its bottom line.

How seriously does FetLife take silencing dissenters and sexual assault survivors? How far are they willing to go to censor and stop these conversations? They’re willing to abuse United States law.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been sent not one, not two, not three, not four, but at least five different DMCA takedown notices for videos I’ve made and posts I’ve written criticizing FetLife. Moreover, my counter-notices were allowed to proceed unchallenged, a tacit acknowledgement that FetLife is well aware their DMCA takedown notices were improper and that my material was all either non-infringing or fair use. The majority of my content is now back online.

But for as long as FetLife’s business model relies upon its users ignorance, they won’t stop trying to silence anyone speaking out against abuse or demanding increased security and privacy options. So I need your help to make sure FetLife won’t succeed.

I need your help to make sure people who want to use FetLife will one day be able to do so safely. I need your help spreading Tarchannen III’s message. Like a banned book, I hope you will republish it everywhere you think it might reach someone who can benefit, by publishing it as a post on your FetLife journal, or sending it around to your friends.

Important safety information and tips for protecting your privacy

So, here it is, the privacy information FetLife doesn’t want you to read:

Hi there,

I hope you’re having a great time on FetLife! :) (Can’t access FetLife? Read this message at: http://pastebin.com/uxYXtpR7 )

To make your experience here as safe and fun as possible, please familiarize yourself with the information in this message. It will equip you with the knowledge you need to protect yourself and your loved ones here and elsewhere!

This message contains information about:

  • Official FetLife policies that put users at risk of sexual assault and rape
  • Tips for protecting your privacy despite FetLife’s lack of user privacy controls
  • Resources for survivors of sexual assault or online harrassment
  • What you can do to help make things better

Any text that looks like this is a link; click it to learn more!

Official FetLife policies that endanger its users

Although it’s invisible to the mainstream, there’s a war on within the BDSM/fetish community about whether to face up to abuse from within. Violations of consent ranging from harassment to rape are sadly more common than people realize, and arguably even more common in sexually charged spaces, such as this. Unfortunately, many assailants hold positions of power within the community, which makes it extremely difficult to talk about without being ostracized from the community. One such prominent alleged assailant is none other than FetLife founder John Baku himself.

Worse, FetLife actively censors survivors who discuss these issues, preventing individuals from helping one another remain safe. For more information about this disturbing trend, please see the following articles:

Here on FetLife, you can learn more by participating in the discussions at the following pages:

Tips for protecting your privacy on FetLife and why you should care if you care about stopping sexual assault

When it comes to protecting your personal information, there are three main groups of people who want access to your information: other users, people with commercial interests, and the government:

Other users includ[e] everyone from your mom on Facebook to crazy stalker blog fans. They may want information for nice reasons (say to wish you a happy birthday on the right day), because of curiosity (or its dangerous older brother, obsession), or for malicious reasons. […F]or most of us, other users are the biggest threat.

Unfortuantely, since FetLife intentionally provides no significantly effective tools for letting you control who, among its more than 1.5 million other users, can access your profile or other activity, this means users like you are vulnerable to the most statistically likely attacks you will face online. Consider what happened to Vicki:

I need help. I am being stalked and threatened by an ex-boyfriend, a “rock star” in certain communities, who wants to be sure that I shut up. He is threatening to send posts, pictures, whatever he wants to my employer.He garotted me and broke a bone in my neck and I ended up having major surgery removing a mass, bone and part of the back of my tongue as a result of the assault.

Can you please “friend” me and advise me on this ?

Thank you,
Vicki

Vicki discovered first-hand why FetLife is an extrmeley dangerous service to use. When it comes to what you can do to protect yourself while using FetLife, sadly, the answer is not much, because FetLife offers very few tools for you to do so. However, at a minimum, you could take the following steps:

  • Remove other users you do not trust from your list of FetLife friends.
  • Set your photos and writings to “Friends only.”
  • Delete any photograph or other personally identifiable information from your profile, such as photos that include pictures of your face, any tattoos, piercings, or other body modifications you may have, or pictures that show identifiable backgrounds such as public venues, street signs, well-known landmarks, and so on. Also be certain to delete any photo that you may have also uploaded to a different website so that the only photos you have on your FetLife profile are photos you use ONLY on FetLife.
  • Remove yourself from any local-area groups you may have joined, or events you may have RSVP’ed to, and do not RSVP to events in the future.
  • Change your location, age, and other profile details so that they do not reflect your physical-world address.
  • Double-check that you are not using the same username on FetLife that you use on any other service. If you are re-using your username, change it to something unique.

Admittedly, doing many of the things in this list will make FetLife far less useful to you. This is an inherent tension in using FetLife as it exists today. The bottom line is that if you cannot afford to be outed, you cannot afford to use FetLife.

Since FetLife is, fundamentally, a business, they have economic incentives to forfeit your privacy. In this way, FetLife is just like other social networks such as Facebook or Foursquare. The major difference is that unlike Facebook or Foursquare, FetLife’s product is your sex life, so they don’t want you to think twice about posting what amounts to amateur porn other users pay to access.

These facts fly in the face of the claims FetLife makes about its own security and privacy. In both areas, computer security experts and online privacy advocates widely agree that FetLife has had numerous ongoing issues and routinely communicate dishonestly to their users about them. For more information, please see the following articles:

These privacy issues combined with the silencing of sexual assault survivors on FetLife create what some people have termed “a nightmare scenario” that makes FetLife uniquely attractive to sexual predators, since it offers structural cover for rapists, rather than survivors, to be safe online.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault or online harrassment

Although FetLife does not offer support for survivors of rape or harassment, there are resources available. If you or someone you know has been a target of cyberbullying, rape, or other assaults, please contact one or more of the following organizations:

What you can do to help make things better

Again, I hope you have fun on FetLife. However, please remember that not everyone has the good fortune of being able to use FetLife safely, and many people may not even be aware of the risks. For the benefit of yourself and others, consider sharing this information with your friends, partners, and other loved ones. Additionally, if you take some of the actions listed below, one day we may all share the benefits of a virtual safer space for our sexual self-expression!

Vote for one or more of the following FetLife improvement suggestions:

Vote for better privacy controls:

Vote to let survivors name their abusers:

Pressure FetLife directly

  • Send an email to privacy@fetlife.com demanding that they address these issues in a constructive way.
  • If you’re on Twitter, post a tweet to alert other people of the issues with and dangers of using FetLife. Here are some tweets you can copy-and-paste:

Rapists have cover on #FetLife: http://goo.gl/oBN5h http://wp.me/pmQrt-M0 http://tinyurl.com/c932e5c Important reads! Pass it on.

Stay safe on #FetLife! http://tinyurl.com/c932e5c http://is.gd/NgZ9NA http://tmblr.co/Z4w0ayRSgRhd #Consent & #privacy matter. Pass it on.

Be careful on #FetLife. Rape survivors are silenced there: http://ow.ly/dwJIi http://tmblr.co/Z4w0aySWGrEY http://wp.me/pQA3i-U6 Read & share!

As always, please also forward any of the information contained in this message to anyone and everyone you feel would benefit from it. You are also encouraged to re-post this message in part or in whole anywhere you wish, whether on FetLife or elsewhere. A copy-and-paste-able version of this message in FetLife formatting is available on Pastebin.com.

Thank you for taking the time to read this important safety information and for helping to keep other FetLife users like you safer. Knowledge is power and sharing is caring, so share your knowledge with the people you love.

Sincerely,
-A friendly FetLife warning buoy

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