Law of Sex
Killing the Messenger: The Campaign Against Online Escort Advertising Sites Part II – Operational Policies & Legal Issues
In Part I of the Killing the Messenger blog post, we addressed the latest headlines highlighting the plight of online escort directories, specifically including the story of Craigslist.org, Backpage.com, and Escorts.com. We now turn to an overview of the legal issues associated with such attention-grabbing stories and attempt to identify preventative measures to be considered by those associated with the online escort directory business model.
One of the unanswered questions resulting from the epidemic of law enforcement activity against online escort directories is whether the mere acceptance of advertising revenue from escort-related activity is against the law? Does some state or federal statute prohibit this business model, or is this a large ‘bluff’ by those seeking to censor disfavored speech? Indisputably, prostitution is against the law throughout the United States except for small portions of Nevada, where legal brothels are allowed to exist. Virtually all states prohibit not only the act of sex for hire, but many related offenses such as deriving proceeds from prostitution, renting a space for purposes of prostitution, and facilitating (or aiding and abetting) the act of prostitution. At the federal level, earning money from prostitution that involves some element of interstate commerce (such as website operation) can allegedly violate the Travel Act and money laundering laws, as seen in the Escorts.com case. However, not all escort directory websites are equally vulnerable to prosecution under these laws, as discussed below. Paying close attention to certain relatively common business practices and developing reasonable advertising review policies can make a significant difference in the degree of risk associated with operation of an online escort site.
Escorts, although engaging in presumptively lawful companionship activity, awkwardly fall within what has become known as the “sex worker” occupation. While those in the adult industry recognize that these companionship providers do not equate their services with sex, their business is erotic and adult-themed entertainment. Nudity may or may not be involved, although stripping in the privacy of a home or hotel room is typically not against the law, and does not constitute prostitution. However, the association with the ‘sex worker’ category is often perceived by mainstream society as having some type of involvement with actual sexual intercourse, or some other form of sexual activity. Until this perception is corrected, escorts will continue to fight being unfairly, and automatically branded as prostitutes by those not familiar with the nuances of the profession.
Federal conspiracy, solicitation and money laundering statutes certainly don’t help an escort site’s plight. The epitome of broad and vague statutory language; these laws expose even the most tangentially involved individual/entity to potential legal liability.
Under classic criminal conspiracy, the government need only prove (1) an agreement to engage in criminal activity, (2) one or more overt acts to execute the agreement, and (3) intent to commit the substantive crime. The language of the conspiracy statute cited as grounds for Count I against Escorts.com defined the alleged conspiracy as two or more persons conspiring to commit an offense “in any manner or for any purpose” – you can’t get much more general than that.
1) the website allowed escorts to post advertisements pertaining to their services,
2) the company owning/operating the website received revenue from the escort’s ads and subscriptions from users paying to view such ads,
3) the site’s users were allowed to post reviews, and,
4) “some” of the escorts advertising on the site engaged in prostitution at some point during the advertiser’s association with the site.
A significant factor in the Escorts.com case appears to be the ability of users to post reviews directly on the site. While the significance of this feature may not be readily apparent to those outside this particular niche, the existence of ‘free form’ user reviews, where customers of the advertisers can post comments and feedback pertaining to their ‘experiences’ with the escorts, can significantly impact the level of knowledge imputed to the escort directory operators. For example, if a user posts that he or she engaged in illegal sexual activity with a provider (whether true or not) this is something that the government might use to demonstrate actual or constructive knowledge of illegal activity by the website operators. The element of “knowledge” would be key in any criminal prosecution brought against an online escort site. Absent some level of knowledge that escorts were ‘crossing the line’ into prohibited conduct, an escort directory should be treated the same as any other online advertising venue for a presumptively legal service. Only when the site operators learn that their advertisers are engaging in such illegal activity, should the concept of criminal liability even be considered.
With the foregoing in mind, what are the danger zones when it comes to “knowledge” that can be associated with criminal culpability? The answer to that question can only truly be provided by an experienced attorney that is familiar with the specifics of any particular escort site’s business model and operating policies. But the following issues should be considered when evaluating potential legal exposure associated with an online escort directory:
- User Reviews: As noted above, any sort of free form reviews incorporated into an escort’s advertising space can be dangerous. Initially, the potential for bogus or fraudulent reviews exists, which could confuse readers and provide prosecutors with plenty of evidentiary fodder, even if the information is not truthful. Moreover, if a user submits an accurate review that includes references to an escort engaging in sex for money, the government would argue that such a review should impute some degree of guilty knowledge on the escort site operator. Counter-arguments exist, of course, but allowing user reviews to be placed directly on an online escort’s ad is a practice that should be carefully evaluated, if it is permitted at all.
- Age Verification: Escort activities are for adults only. Law enforcement is particularly concerned about exploitation of minors by online escort directories. Therefore, use of some age verification device for advertisers is essential. While all escorts may not be willing to provide government-issued ID’s prior to placing an ad, criteria can be developed so that young (or young-looking) advertisers are required to engage in a higher level of age verification than older advertisers. A wise mixture of online age verification devices, database searches, and ID checks can be important to reduce the legal risks associated with online escort directories.
- Ad Approval:
- To Review, or Not to Review? Should escort ads be reviewed and approved by the site operator before publication, after publication, or not at all? That is a difficult decision that will need to be made after consideration of the interplay of three federal statutes; 47 U.S.C. §230 (“Section 230”), 17 U.S.C. §512 (“the DMCA”), and 18 U.S.C. §2257 (Section 2257). We call it; the “Trifecta.” These statutes provide potential immunity, safe harbor and records-keeping compliance exemptions (respectively), for certain online service providers, assuming the business operation is set up properly. While advance review of images and text might be the natural inclination for the diligent webmaster trying to prevent the publication of improper (or illegal) material, such actions could adversely impact the protections afforded to online service providers by federal law. For example, selecting which images are acceptable for publication in an ad could make the site a ‘producer’ under Section 2257, and thus responsible for keeping records associated with any sexually explicit depictions. However, failure to review material before publication could result in underage images or other inappropriate material appearing on the site for at least some period of time, thus triggering other legal concerns. Similar concerns apply to the text of the proposed ads. Reviewing ad text is important to identify any advertisers who intend to offer illegal services. Different policies can be developed for review of images as compared to text, so all options should be explored with counsel.
- Approval Criteria. Assuming that some level of pre-publication review occurs, what criteria should be used? This is where the ‘rubber meets the road’ for escort directories and their lawyers. Development of a viable set of publication standards is critical for risk mitigation purposes. Obviously, any ad that states or suggests willingness to trade sex for money should automatically be rejected. But numerous questions arise concerning where to draw the line in such circumstances. What if the suggestion is made using little-known slang terms, or is the subject of a subtle hint as opposed to an outright proposal? The vernacular of the escort industry is constantly changing, so keeping up with a list of ‘banned terms’ can be a full time job. If the ad is rejected, should the advertiser be permanently banned, as someone willing to engage in illegal activity, or should the advertiser be offered another opportunity to submit a legally-compliant ad? If the advertiser is banned, what precautions should be implemented to ensure that he or she does not sign up using different contact information, or a different name? Should the law of the location where the proposed services will be rendered be taken into consideration, or only the law where the escort directory operates? The answers to all these questions are by no means clear, and much depends on the risk tolerance of the website operator. But generally, the more efforts that are used to weed out escorts who demonstrate a desire to violate the law, the safer the site will be.
- Vouching. What about user or advertiser ‘verification’ or ‘vouching’ services? The Internet has allowed individuals to obtain feedback about potential customers and service providers in all industries, and escorts are no exception. Customers can make sure that the thin blonde in the ad is really a thin blonde, while escorts can make sure a potential customer is not violent, deceptive or incompatible. These are all positive developments for both parties, but implementing a verification procedure increases certain risks for the site providing such services. Any failure of the system might be blamed on the site operator. This is where online terms of service and disclaimers are essential. Again, one’s risk tolerance must be considered when verification or vouching services are offered.
As referenced above, it is imperative for escort sites to realize the subtle “red flags” when it comes to escort advertisements. This is a more difficult job than identifying prohibited images. A visual image that crosses the line, so to speak, is relatively easy to notice even in a stack of digital ads. Finding one little word that might violate a site’s publishing standards, on the other hand, is completely different and can be extremely arduous. Detection of unlawful terminology is often considered so important to the legal health of an escort site, some operators have taken to publicizing “banned terms” list as a guideline for their advertisers and have gone so far to generate an even more comprehensive internal list of flagged terms as an added precaution. Decisions as to what terms to include in public and/or internal lists are difficult, but reasonable policies can be developed and implemented.
Although ignorance is bliss, the law often doesn’t see it that way. Defending prostitution or money laundering charges with an “I didn’t know” argument may, in fact, be the truth, but it’s not likely to get you very far with an aggressive prosecutor. Even though escort services are presumptively legal, escort directory sites should implement reasonable precautions to identify those escorts with a proclivity to violate the law; preferably before an ad is published.
The preventative measures discussed above are far from comprehensive and have only scratched the surface of online escort directory safeguards. If nothing else is taken away from this post, understand that operating an escort website is not to be undertaken lightly. Even if you are able to distinguish your current business model from that of sites like Escorts.com or the former adult services category of Craigslist.org, the law in this area remains murky, and concepts of conspiracy, intent, and facilitation are inherently vague. Nonetheless, these legal concepts are routinely applied to prosecute individuals having only tangential association with criminal activity. Given the focus on escort classified sites by state and federal authorities in recent years, a comprehensive risk mitigation strategy should be developed for any existing or new operations in this field.
All statements made in the above article are matters of opinion only, and should not be considered legal advice. Please consult your own attorney on specific legal matters. You can reach Lawrence Walters at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.FirstAmendment.com.
 See e.g., Chapter 796, Fla. Stat. (2011). See, 796.03 – Procuring person under age of 18 for prostitution; 796.035 – Selling or buying of minors into sex trafficking or prostitution; penalties; 796.04 – Forcing, compelling, or coercing another to become a prostitute; 796.045 – Sex trafficking; penalties; 796.05 – Deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution; 796.06 – Renting space to be used for lewdness, assignation, or prostitution; 796.07 – Prohibiting prostitution, etc.; evidence; penalties; definitions; 796.09 – Coercion; civil cause of action; evidence; defenses; attorney’s fees.
 See 18 U.S.C. §1952; 18 U.S.C. § 1957(a).
 Some cities and counties prohibit nudity in ‘commercial establishments’ but personal residences and hotel rooms would typically be exempted from the purview of such laws.
 For example, the vast majority of BDSM companions (such as dominatrixes) categorically refuse to mix actual sexual activity with their professional services, and none is expected by those who engage such companions.
 That being said, as shown by the pressure brought to bear against Craigslist and Backpage, knowledge isn’t always a given in these cases. Law enforcement may also claim that the operators are, in various ways, turning a ‘blind eye’ to ongoing illegal activity by their advertisers. Thus far, this argument has not been tested in any published court case.
 See e.g., http://www.idology.com.
Killing the Messenger: The Campaign Against Online Escort Advertising Sites; Part I – Setting the Stage
The recent guilty plea by Escorts.com has ignited interest in the legal issues surrounding the operation of an online escort site. In this two-part blog post, the author will examine real-world examples of the government’s recent resurgence in its crusade against escort advertising directories, followed by an overview of pertinent legal concerns applicable to this business model.
In recent decades, law enforcement has started focusing its attention on the common advertising venues for prostitution – escort agencies, massage parlors, etc. Some agencies have gone so far as to threaten local phone book publishers with racketeering charges for publishing ads for escort agencies in their yellow pages. Actual racketeering charges were filed against an alternative weekly newspaper in the Orlando, Florida, area based on its publication of escort ads, but the charges were later dismissed. Law enforcement continues its witch hunt-like pursuit of the escort industry under the flawed theory that forcing escorts “underground” will eventually lead to the cessation of prostitution, itself. Admittedly, law enforcement’s efforts had successfully hampered certain commercial outlets for the escort industry; that is until the advent of the Internet.
Like many things involving the so-called ‘business of sex,’ operating an adult-themed website is not exactly easy these days. Between maintaining compliance with relevant laws, less disposable income by consumers, and the impact of piracy, the adult website industry has suffered its share of challenges recently. But those challenges have been magnified for the online escort directory business model, given law enforcement’s renewed interest in finding a scapegoat to blame for so-called “human trafficking.” As a result, legitimate escort websites have their work cut out for them. Substantial concern has arisen in this arena given the recent forfeiture of Escorts.com to the Department of Justice, and the resulting plea deal whereby the operating companies agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in advertising proceeds, and admit to federal money laundering offenses premised on their online escort advertising activity.
Given that some escorts have been known to cross the line into illegal activity a time or two, operators of online escort websites must be well-versed in several areas of criminal law along with the important constitutional protections afforded to commercial speech. The line between prostitution-related offenses and protected speech can often be ‘dim and uncertain’ as is the case with many other legal issues that adult industry participants are forced to confront on a daily basis. Although prostitution related offenses are the purported basis for most criminal liability surrounding the escort business model, the proliferation of the Internet has caused both law enforcement and escort site operators to consider various ‘accomplice liability’ offenses like conspiracy, solicitation and “aiding and abetting,” when evaluating the legality of a given escort advertising business model. The same laws used to prosecute the person who answers the phone at an ‘out-call’ service may be used in the attempt to impose criminal liability on Internet-based escort directory providers. In the end, much depends on whether the alleged accomplice had knowledge (whether actual or constructive) of any illegal activity by the escort(s). An online classified ad space provider would have no traditional legal obligation to second guess the legality of any advertised services, so long as the services themselves were not inherently illegal. Thus, an ad for unlicensed, automatic weapons may be problematic, however escort activity is not inherently illegal, and is, instead, often recognized and even licensed by many local governments. Online escort directories, at least in theory, should have no reason to question whether a particular advertiser was running an illegal ‘side business’ in addition to her presumptively-legal escort companionship services. However, law enforcement tends to see it differently, and often assume that minors are being exploited through the targeted online escort site, in addition to traditional adult prostitution concerns
Thus, in recent years, in yet another misguided attempt to “save the children,” law enforcement has taken to attacking tangential associates of the escort service business model; the online advertising forums. The Internet enabled countless alternative venues for escort advertising, allowing escorts to take control of their businesses – often eliminating dangerous ‘middlemen.’ But this new business model generated new legal concerns – both for the escort and the advertising service provider. The scope of escort site operation can range from ‘hands on’ services such as scheduling meetings and taking payment, to more detached services such as date reviews, or the simple sale of advertising space to escorts or agencies. It is this last category, mere advertising, where the legal issues get complex. While the sale of advertising space for legal activities should remain protected by the First Amendment under the ‘commercial speech’ doctrine, concerns can develop when the advertising venue gains some level of knowledge of illegal activity – whether actual or intended – undertaken by the escort. This knowledge could come from a variety of sources, including arrest records, anonymous complaints, escort reviews, media reports, or even the escort herself, in the form of proposed or published advertisements. The difficult legal issues generated by these distinct sources of potential knowledge will be addressed in Part II of this post.
In recent years, state and federal authorities have relentlessly pursued a select few online escort venues, namely; Craigslist.org, Escorts.com and BackPage.com. In August of 2010, dozens of state Attorneys General publicly declared a quasi-war on escort advertising starting with a demand letter to Craigslist insisting that the site’s entire adult personals category be removed. For fear of criminal prosecution, Craigslist complied and implemented a new thorough screening process for the revised “adult” section of the site. Undeterred by the site’s attempt at compliance, South Carolina’s Attorney General, Henry McMaster, continued his public threats of criminal prosecution. After several months in and out of court, Craigslist shifted gears and completely abandoned its U.S. based erotic services category and ultimately withdrew its efforts to reinvigorate its censorship claims against the government.
Undoubtedly witnessing the successful results of their Craigslist bullying, the AG’s then set their sights on Backpage.com, via another demand letter calling on the site to terminate its online advertising of “adult services” under the threat of criminal charges. Conceding to a degree, Backpage unveiled new security measures for its adult personal ads and subsequently called on “friends in the industry” (incidentally, directly naming over two dozen “fellow” websites involved in escort services) to form a “National Task Force” against misuse of online escort advertising. Within weeks of Backpage’s roguish actions, several of the identified sites were staring down the barrel of their own state or federal investigations; none more publicized than the unexpected FBI raid on the corporate offices of Escorts.com. After more than six months of industry speculation on the issue and virtual silence from the company, on June 21, 2011, Escorts.com quietly shut down its website. The explanation for the closure came recently with the filing of a corporate guilty plea and forfeiture of the domain name along with substantial amounts of cash.
While the campaign against Backpage.com had slowly faded from the headlines, a few months ago, in July of 2011, the case took on new life, as Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, labeling Backpage as a “well-known accelerant of underage sex trafficking,” ordered all city departments to terminate any active advertising relationship with the Seattle Weekly (a subsidiary of Village Voice Media, the publisher of Backpage.com). Most likely a knee-jerk reaction to the letter issued by the National Organization of Women demanding his support in rallying against Village Voice Media, McGinn’s advertising boycott sent ripples through the online escort industry; the effects of which are still being felt today. Just a few weeks later, in an overly public display reminiscent of that waged against Craigslist, forty-six state AG’s, acting on behalf of the National Association of Attorneys General, sent a letter to Backpage.com accusing the site of knowingly profiting from ads related to prostitution and failing to take the security precautions it once promised to implement. Containing a myriad of demands, the letter’s inquiries into Backpage’s business practices range from “describing in detail” what the site understands to constitute “illegal activity” to requesting specific advertisement statistics and company policy documents. Responding to the letter, Village Voice Media emphatically reiterated that there is "no gap between our mutual goal of eradicating the scourge of child trafficking as quickly and effectively as possible." Citing examples like constant cooperation with police investigators and the successful conclusion of an ad-based sting operation, Village Voice Media maintained that Backpage.com is continually doing everything in its power to prevent criminal activity on its site. Apparently, cooperating with law enforcement is no longer good enough.
The Backpage case was quickly overshadowed by the above-referenced guilty plea by the corporate operators of Escorts.com. National A-1 Advertising and R.S. Duffy, Inc., the parent companies of Escorts.com since 2007, plead guilty to money laundering and criminal forfeiture charges arising from actions that allegedly “facilitated interstate prostitution activities.” According to U.S. Attorney Peter Smith, prostitutes and escort agencies paid to advertise on the site, while customers were charged subscription fees to view such advertisements. The revenue generated by the advertisements and subscription fees constituted the alleged proceeds of “violations of federal laws prohibiting interstate travel in aid of racketeering enterprises, specifically prostitution, and aiding and abetting such travel.” Upon the U.S. District Court’s approval of the settlement agreement, the companies agreed to serve a probation term of 18 months, pay a $1.5 million in fines, and forfeit the domain name www.Escorts.com, along with $4.9 million in cash derived from the alleged unlawful activities. Notably, although the settlement bans the government from bringing additional criminal charges against the companies and their other related business ventures (e.g. – Hotmovies.com and PrimeTel Communications), the agreement does not prohibit the IRS from pursuing any tax-related criminal charges arising from the money laundering. And although prosecutors have reserved the right to criminally pursue individuals associated with both companies, there is no indication that the government intends to pursue such an option. Despite all the ambiguities surrounding the legal fate of online escort directories, one thing is for sure, the pressure from law enforcement not only remains on these online media outlets but is apparently increasing. Legal compliance has never been more important and preventative maintenance is the key. Part II of this blog post will provide an overview of the current issues facing escort websites in light of the current legal environment, and preemptive measures for escort directories that could make all the difference should future litigation arise.
 Escorts participate in a lawful business per local licensing laws specifically drafted to govern escorting activities, for example, various city and county ordinances across the United States enacted specifically for the escorting business model. See Los Angeles Cty. Code, Ch. 7.38 (Escort Bureaus); Las Vegas Code of Ordinances, Ch. 6.36 (Escort Bureaus & Personnel); Dallas Cty. Code of Ordinances, Sec. 10-111 (License for a Sexually Oriented Business); New Orleans Code of Ordinances, Ch. 30, Art. VII (Escort Services); Atlanta Code of Ordinances, Ch. 30, Art. VIII, Div. 2 (Escort Permit); Charlotte Code of Ordinances, Sec. 6-303 (Escort & Dating Service Permit).
 While escorts are referred to throughout this article in the feminine gender, the author recognizes that escort activity crosses gender lines, and is engaged in by males, females, and trans-gendered individuals.
 The author is not suggesting that the post directly caused these investigations, but the timing is at a minimum, suspicious.
United We Stand; Divided We Fall – If Only It Were That Simple
Liberal or conservative? Mac or PC? Romney or Rick? Exacerbated by politics, economic theories, technological preferences and even something as trivial as your reality TV show of choice – these days, it always seems like we’re always picking a side in one way or another. Given that we’re so quick to draw that proverbial line in the sand, one can’t help but wonder how any groups rally together for a common purpose anymore. In this respect, the adult industry is the same as any run-of-the-mill church organization, PTA, or even the federal government – there’s infighting. Representative of, arguably, the strongest motivator of human nature, the adult entertainment industry has the unique task of justly operating within its own sociosphere , all while conveying a somewhat united front to the outside world. But between high-profile obscenity prosecutions, piracy problems, the economy, and DOTXXX, the pressure on those in the industry hasn’t made it easy to sit around singing Kumbaya at the latest industry gathering.
In all fairness, dissension, disagreement, and the dialogue the two create – that’s the kind of stuff we thrive on. When I say ‘we,’ I mean those of us involved in the adult entertainment industry – in one way or another. I understand that we all got involved in the industry for different reasons, intended or not, but we all have that little bit of rebellion deep down inside – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t still be here. This begs the question: Is that drive to question the status quo so innate within us that we simply cannot recognize when it benefits the greater good of the industry to offer support based less upon conditions and more upon the recognition that we’re all supposed to be fighting the same fight?
Despite its substantial contribution to everything from technological development to global charity, the adult industry is not necessarily held in the highest regard in mainstream society. Because of this ‘outsider’ perception, conveying a united front on headline-grabbing issues is all the more important. It seems that the higher-profile the issue, the more cavernous the division is within the industry; especially with matters having a direct impact on the mainstream. Unfortunately for us, those issues that reach the ‘outside’ world, so to speak, are the ones that warrant the most serious attempt at forming a unified front.
As we’ve seen in the past, this industry has actually turned on its own a time or two – a regrettable circumstance that does nothing but harm the industry as a whole. The Extreme Associates and Max Hardcore cases are two perfect examples of situations where the industry severely lacked in supporting its own. Arguably, one of the most significant legal attacks against the adult industry, US v. Extreme Associates, was the federal government’s first major obscenity prosecution since the early 1990’s; a grim reminder that political rants on “moral values” aren’t always just empty threats. For those who don’t remember, in 2003, husband and wife business partners, Rob Black and Lizzy Borden were indicted on various conspiracy and obscenity charges based on the “extreme” hardcore nature of adult content produced by their corporate entity, Extreme Associates. The case was dismissed by the district court in January 2005, which ruled that the federal obscenity statutes were unconstitutional because they violated an individual’s right to privacy. The DOJ appealed and found success in a Third Circuit decision overturning the District Court’s ruling, which eventually lead to the couple pleading guilty on obscenity charges and their subsequent imprisonment. Similarly, in 2008, Paul Little (a.k.a. Max Hardcore) was convicted of ten counts of distributing obscene materials, stemming from adult films produced by his company, Max World Entertainment. He was ultimately sentenced to a 46 month prison term. The lack of support – both financial and moral – offered to these individuals illustrates exactly how the adult industry should not respond to government attacks against a fellow industry associate. Black and Little were essentially on their own, as other content producers tried to distance themselves from the type of content subject to prosecution. Sadly, it became alarmingly easy to distinguish one’s self and/or business practices from “those people” who were targeted in the DOJ’s latest witch hunt du jour.
If we’re being frank here, it was the extreme nature of Black’s and Little’s content that likely had industry players running to their lawyers asking whether their content was ‘safer’ than the material subject to prosecution. Those same lawyers may well have cringed at the thought of advising any public support or association with defendants under federal indictment. But support for the most extreme end of the industry ironically helps keep all others safer. Bottom line: The members of the adult entertainment industry should not only have rallied behind Paul Little and Rob Black, but should thank them for being willing to take a bullet for the same people that averted eye contact for years instead of readily opening their wallets as a gesture of unwavering solidarity. The federal government (and more than a few right-wing political groups, for that matter) would love nothing more than for the industry to cannibalize itself – and with Extreme Associates and Max Hardcore, that’s what happened. Even more industry division has resulted from the DotXXX battle, which has left close friends no longer speaking with each other. It is time to rise above.
Despite its wavering past, hope springs eternal. In 2008, when producer John Stagliano was indicted on seven counts of violating federal obscenity laws stemming from the sale and distribution of adult films by his company, Evil Angel, the industry galvanized solidly behind John. Even though he was financially able to defend himself from the governmental onslaught, most industry stakeholders provided much-needed moral and public support for his cause. Approximately two years later a federal district court judge dismissed the case finding that the evidence provided was insufficient for a jury to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Stagliano case is a prime example of the adult entertainment industry pulling together to present a united front. Recognizing the fluidity of obscenity prosecutions and the particular content targeted in them, Stagliano’s legal team addressed the industry, specifically requesting that it not make the same mistakes seen in the Max Hardcore case. Calling on each content producer to be a “foot soldier” in the battle against unwarranted prosecution, Stagliano’s attorneys encouraged industry players to preserve current business relationships, donate to the cause and maintain unconditional assistance despite fear of prosecution. John Stagliano chose to fight the good fight and luckily the industry as a whole remained a foundation for that fight.
Remaining optimistic thanks to the Stagliano case, I have also had the pleasure of seeing first-hand the industry unite on a much smaller, but equally as important, scale in opposing the current prosecution of Theresa Taylor (a.k.a. Kimberly Kupps). Involving the all-too-familiar venue of Polk County, Florida, Ms. Taylor is facing felony state obscenity charges based on the content of her website KimberlyKupps.com. The content targeted in this case is well within the mainstream of modern erotic fare, and has thus far not resulted in the distancing and finger pointing that occurred during the Extreme Associates and Max Hardcore cases. This Kupps prosecution epitomizes the slippery slope that occurs when law enforcement agents deem themselves the judge, jury, and executioner in enforcing overly subjective legal standards to adult content. Having already received dozens of donations to help fight the censorship machine that reared its ugly head once again in Polk County, I remain extremely encouraged and pleased to see the adult industry supporting the cause – even for a state level prosecution such as this.
The spirit of this post is a call to action for the adult entertainment industry, not to dwell on missteps of the past. Heck, even the industry lawyers have their own share of in-fighting. But in order to know where we are going, we must know where we’ve been, and in turn recognize the mistakes that were made on the way. I am proud, and always humbled, to have the opportunity to fight for the First Amendment rights of the adult industry, and represent those victimized by sex hysteria. But in order to make progress and deter the government from committing future Free Speech violations, the members of the adult industry must stand in solidarity with each other, regardless of petty intra-industry disputes, issues with competition, disagreements over content, or fear of becoming the next target. Aptly referenced by our colleague, H. Louis Sirkin, Esq., in discussing the importance of unconditional industry support of its own members, I leave you with this famous quote: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me." [Pastor Martin Niemöller]
Where Angels Fear to Tread – The Dangers of Asserting Unfair Competition Claims Involving 2257 Compliance
“Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Although trite, this saying is particularly applicable to participants in the contemporary adult entertainment industry. Invoking criminal laws designed to break the backs of adult business entrepreneurs as a basis for gaining legal leverage in intra-industry commercial disputes can be dangerous business. This concern arose recently in the lawsuit filed by Ventura Content, Ltd. (i.e. Pink Visual) against Motherless.com, a “tube” site. Most of the allegations in the Complaint involve fairly typical claims of copyright infringement directed toward a site that allegedly allowed users to upload Ventura’s content, without its consent. However, what makes this case different, and potentially hurtful to the adult industry as a whole, is the inclusion of a claim premised on California’s Business and Professions Code § 17200, providing various remedies for victims of “unfair” business practices that cause monetary damages to a party. In its Complaint, Ventura alleges that motherless.com: 1) fails to maintain the performer age records mandated by 18 U.S.C.§ 2257 (“Section 2257”); 2) fails to post a compliance statement identifying the location of the age records required by Section 2257; and 3) fails to identify Ventura as the “primary producer” of the content appearing on the motherless.com website. Ventura further claims that consumers are lured to the motherless.com site because of its (false) claims of 2257 compliance, and because its content is free. Perhaps most disturbingly, Ventura asks the court to enforce Section 2257 by issuing an injunction shutting down the motherless.com website for failure to comply with Section 2257.
Those of us who have been involved with the adult industry since the 1980’s can attest that the industry has consistently been fighting the validity and enforcement of Section 2257 for decades. Countless hours of manpower, brain power, volunteerism, and legal work, have gone into multiple lawsuits and lobbying efforts, all designed to rid the world of the unfair and unconstitutional burdens imposed by Section 2257. This law costs both content producers and webmasters millions of dollars in compliance efforts and legal advice on a yearly basis. Drafted by Congress as a knee-jerk reaction to the Traci Lords scandal of the early 90’s, Section 2257, even if fully complied with, does not do a single thing to legitimately combat the involvement of underage participants intentionally misrepresenting their age with a fake ID. This article is not designed to outline the many constitutional defects with Section 2257 – that has been done time and time again, in numerous, well-written complaints and legal briefs filed by industry representatives. Nor is this article designed to cast aspersions upon Ventura as a company. In fact, this author has pointed out in the past that Pink Visual, in particular, is remarkably visionary in its approach to adult content delivery. This article is intended to call attention to a potentially unwise legal strategy that jeopardizes the decades of effort executed by the adult industry in its constant battle against constitutionally-questionable effects of Section 2257.
The Complaint against motherless.com was filed at a particularly vulnerable time in the adult industry’s history. The Free Speech Coalition’s lawsuit challenging Section 2257 was recently dismissed, and with there was a heartbreaking end result in the Connections case, where an earlier decision invalidating Section 2257 on constitutional grounds was vacated by the en banc panel of the Sixth Circuit, which chose to uphold the statute. Unless the FSC happens to catch a break in its appeal to the Third Circuit, few barriers to ultimate enforcement of the statute now exist. Politically, we could be headed for an ultra-conservative new GOP President, House and Senate - all with the adult industry squarely in its sights. While it has been years since any 2257 inspections have occurred, the statute could be enforced with a vengeance given the slightest shift in political winds. The Department of Justice can go back several years in determining whether a producer or distributor was in compliance, and is thus not limited to investigating the current compliance regime in place by a potential target. Therefore, even if companies are in compliance today, they remain at legal risk if their compliance methods fell short in the past few years.
Despite this precarious environment, Ventura initiated a lawsuit against motherless.com which provides implicit validity to Section 2257, and which can be misused by the opponents of the adult industry. Moreover, Ventura seeks to enlist the help of the federal court in enforcing Section 2257 against the website defendant and shutting it down for its alleged failure to fully comply with the records keeping and labeling requirements. Again, such claims pre-suppose the validity of 2257, which (as noted above) the industry has been fighting for decades. Ventura already claims to have recorded numerous instances of copyright infringement against motherless.com, so the additional benefit of including this delicate and potentially dangerous “unfair competition” claim, under California law, seems – at a minimum – questionable. The author fully acknowledges that content producers have the right to fight piracy, and lawyers have the right to use all legal tools at their disposal to vindicate their client's interests. But, from the perspective of a First Amendment lawyer, signing a complaint that seeks to force any party to comply with Section 2257 – under the pain of court-imposed censorship, would present a significant quandary. That’s a little too close to the DOJ’s job for comfort, in this author’s view. Moreover, if Ventura wins, any such ruling could create substantial vulnerability for other online service provider websites that rely on the same statutory 2257 exemptions as tube sites for their operations - such as adult dating sites, online escort sites, adult forums, and adult review sites. Ventura could win its battle against motherless.com, yet help lose the 2257 war for the industry. There could also be a domino effect on related protections from civil liability afforded to online service providers, such as those found in Section 230, and the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA. Notably, the 2257 exemptions at issue in this case are directly tied to Section 230’s immunity concept. See, 28 C.F.R. § 75.1(4)(v). In this author’s opinion, the risks for other service providers, and even for other content producers, is just too high to justify the limited additional leverage that inclusion of this claim accomplishes. However, there is admittedly room for disagreement on this issue. Given the problems that content producers have encountered with getting piracy under control, there is no perfect answer here.
While many content producers maintain a little-publicized, symbiotic relationship with tube sites, whereby the sites are allowed to seed certain levels of content for promotional purposes; there is no indication that such was the case between Ventura and motherless.com. Accordingly, if Ventura was truly the victim of online piracy by motherless.com, as alleged in the Complaint, its outrage and demand for legal justice is understandable. But converting the desire to enforce one’s intellectual property rights into a demand that an adult website be shut down by a federal court for failure to comply with Section 2257 is what generates the discomfort. My recommendation, for what it’s worth; go after the pirates for intellectual property infringement until the cows come home, but leave Section 2257 enforcement to the Department of Justice; it has already accepted the job of making life difficult for the adult industry.
 Case No.: 2:11-cv-05912-SVW-FMO (C.D. CA 2011).
 Complaint at ¶¶ 31-38. (Notably, Section 2257 no longer requires secondary producers to identify the “primary” producer of the material. Such practice was commonly used by webmasters until the change in the law that occurred in 2008, requiring all producers to maintain their own records.)
 Complaint at ¶ 39.
 Complaint at ¶ 41 (Unlike some other federal statutes, Section 2257 does not provide for a private right of action, allowing private parties to seek enforcement of this criminal statute.)
 Most adult industry attorneys concur that 100% compliance is virtually impossible, and that very few (if any) content producers or webmasters are in complete compliance with all the nuances of Section 2257.
 Congress passed the initial version of 2257 in response to the Traci Lords scandal, wherein Ms. Lords, at the tender age of 15, began her adult performer career using a fake ID.
 See, The Marketplace Has Spoken…and at least one company has listened, available at: http://lawofsex.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/the-marketplace-has-spoken%E2%80%A6-and-at-least-one-company-has-listened/
 Connection Distributing Co. v. Keisler, 505 F.3d 545 (6th Cir. 2007) reh’g granted, opinion vacated sub nom, Connection Distributing Co. v. Holder, 557 F.3d 321 (6th Cir. 2009).
 47 U.S.C. § 230, et seq.
 17 U.S.C. § 512
YES WE CAN! NO, ACTUALLY YOU SORT OF DIDN’T…
…And because you didn’t, there’s a good chance that the GOP is going to take this opportunity to pounce.
It seems like just yesterday that Obama was being sworn into office. As with the inception of most new presidential terms, the American people were filled with hope that the new Commander in Chief was going to right the (in this case, considerable) wrongs of his predecessor. It didn’t take long, however, for the citizens to notice that they were looking at a man who had once promised to change Washington, but was now looking like he had, in fact, been changed by it. Claims of reinvigorating personal freedoms and giving the country back to the middle class were now put on the backburner in order to repair the collateral damage left over from Bush-era policies. But in all fairness, is there really time for restricting warrantless wiretaps and closing Guantanamo Bay when you’re left to deal with a record-breaking $1.3 trillion deficit.
With his first year in office analogized to the actions of a chicken with his head cut off, Obama was stigmatized as “trying to do too much” and as a result accomplishing nothing. Granted, Obama had quite the mess to clean up and, after all, it’s politics; if people aren’t complaining about you, you either aren’t relevant or you just haven’t sexted an unwilling recipient yet. But here we are, over two years later and many have been left wondering what kind of legacy the Obama Administration will leave besides the aftermath of one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history and grumblings of “They said they could, but did they?” As much as some might not like it, the reality is that with Obama’s approval ranting hovering in the low to mid 40’s the last few months (even with a recent spike after the killing of Osama Bin Laden), it might be time to take a serious look at what the Republicans are bringing to the table for 2012. Or more importantly, what’s for dinner?
When the GOP presidential hopefuls started tossing their respective hats into the ring, it was most definitely a Romney/Huckabee/Gingrich race. Those nominations slowly warped into a Romney/Gingrich/Pawlenty race and now that the commotion has died down a bit, we not only have a dark horse in the running but one that is actually pulling ahead; Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, a relatively new face to the White House mix, is proving that although she too might be in need of a fact-checker on speed-dial, she is no Sarah Palin, and possibly capable of breaking up the GOP Nominee Boys Club for good.
But first let’s take a look at the number one front-runner for the presidential nomination, a title that he has held since the very beginning of 2012 election talks, everybody’s favorite Mormon; Mitt Romney. After a surprising second-place caucus finish to Mike Huckabee back in 2008, Romney was said to have been hanging up his presidential hat for good. But now that the last three years have seen unparalleled unemployment rates and economic decline , the seasoned venture capitalist seems to be eager to show off his financial prowess in supposedly turning around the U.S.’s teetering economy. Besides a few standard overzealous blips on the legislative radar during his tenure as governor as Massachusetts (read: the infamous RomneyCare), Romney’s only other major political hurdle is his religion.
Reminiscent of the JFK-Catholicism concerns of the 1960 presidential election, Romney seems to be doing his best to bypass any religion-based pigeon-holing, but doing so with enough aloofness and a trademark million dollar smile so as to avoid losing the socially-conservative Christian vote. With the trend of goliath-esque issues like government bailouts and deficit/spending eclipsing social concerns like abortion and gay marriage, the last four years might have created the perfect storm for Romney to save the day.
Next on the list is former Speak of the House, Newt Gingrich. After a thirteen year sabbatical from politics, Newt has started off his presidential nomination the best way he knows how: by shooting off at the mouth. Doing so has more often than not worked to his benefit and this go-round is probably no different. Reminiscent of the fiery Republican Whip of the early 90’s, Gingrich kicked off his candidacy with slamming the GOP’s Medicare proposal and publicly humiliating a Republican representative. He makes no qualms about the fact that he is a big personality, and tends to make up for any goodwill faux pas with swift, public recoveries exhibiting the skills of a truly seasoned politico.
Newt’s aggressive legislative tactics, weak fundraising abilities and, as of late, propensity for infuriating people to the point that they no longer wish to work for him seem to be too large of hurdles to bypass Romney’s unassuming charm to make it to the head of the class. In all honesty, having your campaign team publicly question your commitment to the race probably doesn’t fare well with your political party and more importantly, choosing a Mediterranean cruise over campaign events probably doesn’t fare well Joe Public. Everyone knows that if given the opportunity they would pick Greece over Iowa too, but there’s some to be said for dedication to the cause when the “cause” is running the United States.
Despite Newt’s discipline problems, with his name recognition so deep-rooted in the American psyche and his renowned reputation as one of the “idea guys,” Newt might still have a shot as a contender for the VP seat in 2012. One thing is certain, Newt Gingrich is a politician to the bone and he has decided to come back out and play with the big boys. Meaning, even if his chaotic campaign has destroyed the last shred of a prospective win in 2012, you can be sure that if a Republican ends up in the White House, there’s a good chance that Newt is going to have his hands in the cookie jar somehow.
And finally, we have America’s anti-establishment sweetheart, Michele Bachmann. The three-term Congresswoman from Minnesota is most known for being the chair of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, the Tea Party is a political movement dedicated to limiting government intervention and promoting fiscal conservatism, executed of course, with that oh-so-subtle panache that we’ve all come to love from the party.
Grass-roots fighters by their very nature, the Tea Party has vehemently defended Bachmann and her activists support her in ways that traditional republican candidates only dream of. Bachmann’s sometimes polarizing ideologies and quirky exploits have provided her with a speedy trip up the polls, but it’s her fund-raising capabilities that are going to keep her there. Already deemed a fundraising juggernaut less than two months after announcing her candidacy, Bachmann notably raised over $13.5 million during her last election cycle – numbers like that are simply unheard of in this type of economy. Further, it was reported that virtually all of those campaign contributions came from individuals, not lobbyists/big business, and over 50% of the donations coming from people contributing $200 or less. This tells us one thing for sure: Michelle Bachmann has a loyal following and there are a lot of them. Enough to win a presidential election? Maybe not. A serious contender at the very least? Undeniably. Maybe that “slightly off” courage of conviction is exactly what the American electorate wants to see after the last four years. Recent polls seem to show that is certainly the case. Say what you will about Bachmann, she has been called everything from a fanatic to downright crazy. But regardless of how you feel about her unorthodox methods, at this point, “underestimated” seems more accurate a description.
And because the Tea Party is never to be outdone when it comes to random political shenanigans, just last week Representative Bachmann announced that she was going to be the first presidential nominee to sign “The Marriage Vow,” a pledge sponsored by one of the country’s most socially-conservative organizations; the Family Leader Organization. Upon signing the pledge, Bachmann agreed to remain faithful to his or her partner, oppose gay marriage, reject pornography, reject Islamic law, and declare that homosexuality is a choice and a public health risk, among other things. The signing of this pledge, no doubt directly related to Bachmann’s unexpected success at the Iowa Caucuses, probably isn’t going to do much to help Bachmann’s attempt at reaching beyond the Tea Partiers and resonating as a serious candidate with the rest of the voters. So although she’s clearly not providing the most politically correct platform, Bachmann’s no-holds-barred approach may just be the breath of fresh, albeit bigoted, air needed for the U.S.’s politically jaded general electorate in 2012. She can only hope that Saturday Night Live does not pull off the perfect caricature as it did with Tina Fey’s impeccable Sara Palin.
So what does all this mean for the adult industry? Honestly, as with most things involving politics, it’s just too soon to tell. Obviously with a Republican in office, the sky is the limit in terms of utilizing the adult industry as a political agenda tool. However, we’ve had a supposed liberal in the White House for some time now, and things aren’t exactly ideal by any means. Is this a case of “better the devil you know”? Or even more disturbing, have we gotten to the point where disconcerting thoughts like picking the lesser of two political evils is just the grim reality of politics in the 21st Century? Let’s hope not. But between Romney’s uber-conservative religious background, Newt’s deep-rooted affiliation with all things GOP and Bachmann’s new anti-porn platform, the adult entertainment industry is far from at ease in anticipating the outcome of this election, and rightfully so. Should the electorate respond to the Obama administration’s failure to address the significant economic issues facing the country by electing a reactionary like Bachmann, we could see a level of hostility directed at the adult industry that has not been witnessed since the Reagan – Bush era.
*Note: This article was drafted with the purpose of addressing various political agendas affecting the adult entertainment industry and in no way was intended as a political endorsement of any candidate. It should also be noted that the author is not associated with any election campaign and is not a member of any political party.
Reading the Tea Leaves? Discerning the Ultimate Fate of Section 2257
Adult content producers and webmasters have become increasingly resigned to the fact that Section 2257 compliance is here to stay. Renowned industry attorney Greg Piccionelli, Esq., has recently written a detailed set of articles reminding producers of their complicated obligations necessary to achieve 100% compliance with 2257. The increased focus on records keeping obligations is the result of a confluence of events, such as; the district court’s dismissal of the Free Speech Coalition’s (FSC) most recent legal challenge to the statute and associated regulations; the historical trend in the courts in previous 2257 challenges; and the potential for a Republican president in 2013, complete with a newly-appointed conservative Attorney General.
So, is this reluctant acceptance of 2257 as a fact of life warranted? Or is there still a possibility that these burdensome obligations will be lifted – potentially in favor of a more realistic and constitutional system of performer age verification? The answer to these questions requires that we delve into the history of the challenges to Section 2257, and recap the current status of the law.
Initially, the Free Speech Coalition should be congratulated for continuing to fight the good fight against Section 2257. They’ve litigated hard in several courts in the attempt to beat back these sweeping regulations. J. Michael Murray, Esq., whose firm was hired to mount the most recent challenge, which is currently pending in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals – is one of the best First Amendment lawyers in the biz. But given the history of previous legal challenges to the statute and the way the wind is blowing in the current case, adult webmasters and content producers may need to come to grips with the fact that 2257 will be upheld, therefore, enforcement by the FBI may resume at any time.
The previous attempts to invalidate 2257 have spanned over two decades since its inception in 1988. The original law was struck down as unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds shortly after its passage. American Library Ass’n. v. Thornburgh, 713 F. Supp. 469 (D.D.C. 1989). After the Thornburgh challenge, Congress amended the statute to no longer utilize a rebuttable presumption that the performer in question was a minor, but to directly impose criminal sanctions for noncompliance. The ALA challenged 2257 again challenged, but this time the First Amendment didn’t come out on top. In American Library Ass'n. v. Reno, 33 F.3d 78 (D.C. Cir. 1994), the amended version of 2257 was upheld, as the court rejected the ALA’s argument that the record-keeping provisions were content-based restrictions. In doing so, the Reno court agreed with the feds that record-keeping requirements are necessary to prevent the exploitation of children and a commercial market for child pornography. Further, the district court tailored the scope of the record-keeping provisions by narrowing the definition of "secondary producers" and eliminating the indefinite temporal requirement for maintaining records.
All was calm on the 2257-front for a few years until Sundance Assoc., Inc. v. Reno, 139 F.3d 804 (10th Cir. 1998), when the Tenth Circuit decided to shake things up a bit and take the DOJ down a peg. The Sundance court invalidated the regulations that imposed records keeping obligations on “secondary producers;” a broad category of ‘producers’ that was created purely by agency regulation and not referenced in the actual 2257 statute. The industry as a whole generally relied on the Sundance decision as the correct interpretation of the law. In the real world that meant that only original producers of adult content kept records, and webmasters that were uninvolved with content production maintained no records of their own, but simply identified the ‘primary producer’s’ records custodian on their website, in order to discharge their perceived obligations under the statute. The DOJ disagreed with the Sundance interpretation of the law, but the statute went unenforced for several years after the Sundance case, so the industry became complacent with the status quo.
That all changed in 2005, when the DOJ passed new regulations which re-ignited the “secondary producer” debate, by imposing records-keeping requirements on all producers including webmasters that published material on a website. The Code of Federal Regulations issued in June of 2005 defined a secondary producer as one who "inserts on a computer site or service a digital image of, or otherwise manages the sexually explicit content of a computer site or service that contains a visual depiction of, an actual human being engaged in actual or simulated sexually explicit conduct." Overnight, hundreds of thousands of websites became illegal given the lack of 2257 records to back up the content appearing on those sites.
In response to these amended regulations, and the tremendous panic in the industry, the FSC filed suit in Colorado, which happens to be within the realm of the Tenth Circuit, and was therefore bound to follow the Sundance case as precedent. Free Speech Coalition v. Gonzales, 406 F. Supp. 2d 1196 (D. Colo. 2005). On December 28, 2005, the FSC received a late Christmas present when the district court, following Sundance, preliminarily enjoined enforcement of the new requirements for all secondary producers who were members of the FSC at the time. As the Attorney General commenced the appeals process in Gonzales, Congress was taking matters into its own hands by passing the Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act, which officially amended 2257 by adding “secondary producers” to the list of those responsible for the record keeping obligations. This essentially ‘fixed’ the main problem identified in the Gonzales case. In the wake of the Adam Walsh Act passage, the Gonzalez court granted a partial summary judgment against the FSC in the case, finding that the Sundance decision no longer applied to 2257 as amended. Free Speech Coalition v. Gonzales, 483 F. Supp. 2d 1069 (D. Colo. 2007). On May 1, 2007, based on an agreement by both the DOJ and the FSC, the Gonzales court dismissed the case, likely as a result of the legislative resolution of the main legal challenge raised in the litigation.
This left 2257 in a state of presumed validity until a breathtaking win followed quickly by a heartbreaking loss in the case of Connection Distributing Co. v. Holder, 557 F.3d 321 (6th Cir. 2009) (en banc), cert. denied 2009 U.S. LEXIS 6926 (Oct. 5, 2009). In fall 2007, a panel of three judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the record-keeping requirements set forth in 2257 imposed an overbroad burden on protected speech. Shortly after the opinion was issued, the government successfully petitioned the entire Sixth Circuit for “en banc” review of the panel decision. Ultimately, the en banc court rendered a devastating blow to the adult industry by vacating the well-reasoned panel decision, and upholding 2257 in the face of numerous constitutional challenges.
In 2008, the DOJ passed another set of regulations, clarifying its position on records keeping compliance by both primary and secondary producers (along with many other issues). Those regulations became effective in March, 2009, and are what the industry lives by today.
Ultimately, the FSC mounted its most recent challenge the statute and related regulations by filing FSC v. Holder, 2010. U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75471 (E.D. PA July 27, 2010), in Pennsylvania. However, the district court rejected the FSC’s challenges last summer, and dismissed the case (alternatively) on the grounds of collateral estoppel/res judicata, which means that the prior losses suffered by the FSC in the Gonzalez case prevented the organization from re-litigating those issues in the Holder case. Id; see Memorandum Opinion dated July 27, 2010, at p. 45. This doctrine of ‘claims preclusion’ essentially means that the same party can’t keep suing over and over again, asking different courts (or the same court) for the same relief. The FSC has appealed the dismissal of its most recent case to the Third Circuit, in the hopes of reviving the legal challenge and obtaining some relief on behalf of the industry.
While the author wishes the FSC all the success in the world in its pending appeal, the chances of success in striking down 2257 are looking somewhat slim. As is evident from the above, the majority of court decisions have rejected challenges to 2257, and the FSC has been a party to a couple of these cases already, which negatively impacts its chances of prevailing, given the issues of claims preclusion referenced above. While all the previous court decisions may be wrong, from an academic perspective, a brief gaze into the crystal ball provides a pretty good idea what will happen with the current challenge in the Third Circuit. As a general rule of thumb recognized in the legal community, the chances of prevailing in any appeal are less than 25%. When you factor in things like the fact that the case is being backed by the adult industry, the previous losses by the FSC, and the government’s claim that the challenged regulations are designed to “protect the children” from exposure to sexual activity, the chances of a win on appeal tend to grow even slimmer. Anyone who’s been involved in litigation before will tell you to expect the unexpected, but truth be told; the FSC is fighting an uphill battle.
Certainly this information will be tough to swallow for those closely involved with the case, who undoubtedly remain hopeful for a positive outcome. But as a practical matter, any producers who are counting on invalidation of 2257 as their records-keeping strategy need to wake up and read the tea leaves – to mix a metaphor. All producers of 2257-triggering content should be in full compliance by now, in preparation for another potential loss on appeal, and eventual enforcement of the statute. Moreover, given Congress’s track record lately and waning public approval of the current Administration, a rigorous enforcement plan could be very likely if there is a Republican to answer to in 2013.
At this point in the game, the only realistic hope for invalidating 2257 is for a party with substantial funding and completely separated from the FSC, to initiate a new challenge using a different legal strategy than that which has been employed thus far. Unfortunately for the FSC, as a party plaintiff in the previous cases, it is burdened with these ‘res judicata’ and ‘collateral estoppel’ defenses based on its previous losses in court. Any new 2257 challenge would need to come from a new entity, which may need to carefully avoid association with the FSC or its members, given how courts determine (based on “privity”) which parties are barred by claims preclusion defense. Additionally, for any realistic shot at a successful claim, any new challenge would need to be based on different legal arguments and theories. Admittedly, the arguments made in the litigation thus far have been viable and should have carried the day with any intellectually-honest judge. But that’s not always the reality when one steps into court – particularly when the adult industry is behind the challenge. Other potential claims remain available to be litigated, but it is uncertain whether they will ever be raised, and who would raise them. Naturally, funding is always an issue, and constitutional litigation against the federal government is nothing if not costly.
For the foreseeable future, the industry needs to take a second look at its records keeping and labeling compliance status. This includes so-called user generated content sites which have taken liberal advantage of the 2257 exemptions, even in some cases where the content is not truly user-generated, or does not fall into the recognized exemptions. It’s time to dot the I’s and cross the T’s with your 2257 records, because the writing may be on the wall, for those who choose to see. But for the time being, the only true constant for 2257 is the phrase, ‘to be continued…’
The PROTECT IP Act – Warning: This Bill May Cause Seizures
If a lawmaker were to mix the overzealous propaganda of the USA Patriot Act with the overreaching executive authority of COICA, the new PROTECT IP Act would probably be the result. This new version of COICA, chock full o’ censorship issues, but with a shiny new name was recently introduced to Congress. Say hello to the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity & Theft of Intellectual Property” (PROTECT IP) Act.
Had it not stalled after its committee approval last year, COICA would have allowed federal authorities to seize domain names of sites using infringing content and require ISPs to cut off user access to the rogue sites. Well, the PROTECT IP Act raises the stakes a bit. The Act seeks to set up as system whereby the government, or private parties, can file suit against domain names that are tied to websites allegedly dedicated to infringing activity, get a preliminary court order based on one-sided evidence, and use that court order to force third party service providers like hosts, registrars, payment processors and others, to effectively shut down the site.
This means that any entity providing services to an allegedly infringing site can be dragged into the suit; even “internet location tools.” That’s right, search engines. Under the proposed legislation, these third parties have every incentive to do the government’s bidding, and even police their customers’ activities, since the Act provides an immunity from claims resulting from actions taken by a service provider against a site where the provider has a “good faith belief” that the site is “dedicated to infringing activities.” Host and billing companies beware; ‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’ in this Bill.
Just like they did last year with COICA, supporters of the Act cite to its “safeguards” in defense of the anticipated backlash. These purported safeguards include the ability of an affected site to “petition the court to suspend or vacate the order” in question. As you might guess, the “safeguards” are implemented after the feds get the ball rolling and the involved service providers have already been forced to discontinue services or access to the site. In other words, censor first, ask questions later…
Equally disturbing is the Act’s “private right of action” provided to IP owners. Rights holders, along with the government, will have the ability to pursue legal action against websites that are allegedly infringing on their IP rights and other affiliated third party intermediaries such as a payment processor or “online advertising network.” The import of this provision cannot be understated. The obligations imposed on service providers could change dramatically if they face being dragged into private lawsuits based on their customers’ activities. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation accurately pointed out, “Consider whether Viacom would have bothered to bring a copyright infringement action against YouTube—with the attendant challenges of arguing around the DMCA safe harbors—had it had this cause of action in its arsenal. The act includes language that says it's not intended to ‘enlarge or diminish’ the DMCA's safe harbor limitations on liability, but make no mistake: rights holders will argue that safe harbor qualification is simply immaterial if a site is deemed to be dedicated to infringement.”
The one benefit offered by the PROTECT IP Act is a new, narrower definition of proscribed websites characterized with the infamous phrase of “dedicated to infringing activities.” The previous definition used in COICA was overly vague to the extent that it would have likely put legitimate websites at risk of violation. That definition, although admittedly much more lenient than its predecessor, is only a slight concession in the grand scheme of things.
Of greatest concern, from a First Amendment perspective, is the increased likelihood of pretrial seizure of domain names that are alleged to be in violation of the Act. Registrars, or even registries, are likely included in the category of service providers subject to the new Bill. Shutting down an entire venue of communication based on a preliminary finding that it is dedicated to infringing activities, before a trial or other judicial determination on the merits, runs counter to all Free Speech principles. That’s why the government cannot shut down a bookstore just because a clerk gets arrested for selling an allegedly obscene book. However, the concept of the government seizing domain names, the same domains that are home to constitutionally protected speech, and that seizure occurring before any defenses are heard, reeks suspiciously of what we constitutional lawyers call “prior restraint.” That, simply, is not allowed.
This disturbing trend of seizing domain names made headlines just a few weeks ago in what has come to be known in online gaming circles as “Black Friday.” On April 15, 2011, the United States DOJ issued an indictment, and filed a civil suit against the three largest online poker sites in the world; Poker Stars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. As a result, the .com domain names for each of the sites were seized for ultimate forfeiture to the government, as alleged instrumentalities of the “crime.” What crime? Well, since Internet poker is technically not against any federal law, the DOJ dug up some New York misdemeanor statutes which generally prohibit gambling and related promotional activities as the purported basis for the gambling charges, and the multimillion dollar seizures of domain names and bank accounts. But the applicability of this state statute to licensed foreign gaming activities is questionable at best. Regrettably, however, due to some accompanying bank fraud charges, it is unclear whether or not this case will determine once and for if online poker illegal. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the DOJ has made clear that it will seize any domain name – at the registry level – that it deems to be used in the violation of U.S. law – even if operated from overseas, in full compliance with the host country’s laws.
Granted, the online gaming industry is no stranger to cyber seizures; Kentucky v. 141 Internet Domain Names has been making its way through the court system for almost three years. In this case, the state of Kentucky demanded that various registrars surrender domain names of sites acting as “gambling devices.” There, the state obtained a pretrial seizure order for the domain names, and emailed the order to the sites’ registrars. Some of the domestic registrars complied, but most of the foreign registrars ignored the court order, as coming from an improper jurisdiction. The key distinction between the Kentucky case, and the recent federal online poker domain seizures, is the level at which the domains were seized. On Black Friday the feds double jumped over the registrars, which were all outside the U.S., and went right to the .com registry to enforce its pretrial seizure order. And since all .com domain names are controlled by a U.S.-based registry, there was no jurisdictional issue to worry about.
A few domains have already been seized, under existing intellectual property laws. In November of 2010, the feds seized a number of domain names on grounds of copyright infringement and counterfeiting. As this post goes to publication, it appears that the DOJ has seized another handful of online gambling domains. The government even created its own undercover payment processor to get the sites to sign up. So the trend shows no sign of letting up.
There is no denying the detrimental impact that piracy is having on the adult industry. Copyright infringement should be punished, consistent with due process principles. But the idea of allowing the government to shut down websites by seizing their .com domain names, based on one-sided hearings and allegations of infringement or counterfeiting – without consideration of the merits or defenses, sets a dangerous constitutional precedent. Simply substitute “obscene” for “infringing” and you get the picture.
She Was How Old? - The Current Dangers of Accidental Involvement of Minors in Erotic Imagery
Protecting minors from involvement in adult entertainment is a common theme in politics and law. Each year we see numerous new bills introduced at the state and federal levels, creating stricter punishments for any form of child pornography. Of course, those in the adult industry do have varying degrees of responsibility when it comes to minors – at least legally. But where does it end? When is enough, enough? More specifically, what can content producers do to make sure they don’t wake up one day facing charges involving sexual exploitation of a minor? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is becoming more complicated.
Accidentally involving minors in adult material is a very real and serious threat to content producers. Given the increasing incidence of identity theft, the possibility of a producer being presented with fake licenses, birth certificates and even social security numbers is more prevalent than ever before. User generated content, without any associated 2257 records, is circulating around adult websites at a rampant pace. The age of some of these ‘models’ is simply unknown. Some of this material may depict some random guy’s underage ex-girlfriend. Such content is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
So what is a legitimate adult content producer to do? Obviously, the more thorough and structured your age verification procedure, the better – but the most in-depth background check won’t necessarily get you out of hot water. Even following systematic 2257 age verification protocol may not avoid criminal charges, or ensure victory if criminal charges result from underage material. You won’t get anywhere with defenses like ‘consent’ or ‘misrepresentation’ – when a minor is involved in adult content, welcome to the land of strict liability. And even if you can surpass the threat of criminal prosecution unscathed, there’s still the prospect of getting hit where it really hurts - your wallet.
Federal law defines “child pornography” as the “visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” And for those who believe they might be flying under the radar because their content is deemed ‘soft core,’ think again. The statute can apply even to the images depicting clothed genitals, in a lascivious manner. If you want to know what ‘lascivious’ means, take a look at the “Dost Factors.” There have been numerous cases of pedophiles being prosecuted under child pornography laws for taking pictures of young girls in skirts at parades, or in tight bathing suits at water parks. Title 18 U.S.C. §§ 2251, 2252 and 2252A make it illegal to produce, sell, traffic in, or possess, child pornographic materials in a way that affects interstate commerce (which includes the Internet). All these crimes carry a hefty prison sentence for anyone found in violation. Despite the severity of their penalties, the sexual exploitation statutes do not specifically require that the prosecution prove the defendant’s knowledge of the minor’s age; effectually making the violation a strict liability offense, regardless of consent or misrepresentation by the minor.
Some good news: The decision in the Supreme Court case U.S. v. X-Citement Video, 513 U.S. 64 (1994), suggests that those who are not directly involved in the production of the adult content may have a defense if they did not know that the model was underage. The defendant in X-Citement, a video store owner, was charged with violating the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act after selling and shipping pornographic videos containing an underage adult film star, although he maintained that he had no ‘scienter,’ or knowledge, of the materials containing underage pornographic acts. The Supreme Court determined that the Act’s requirement that the defendant “knowingly” commit a sexual exploitation violation did not violate the First Amendment. The Court decided that since the law could be interpreted in a way that makes it constitutional, that interpretation must be used, therefore finding that the word “knowingly” extended to the age of the model involved in the production. In effect, the Court’s decision instructs that knowledge as to a model’s age is required for most child pornography offenses, even if such a requirement is not specifically written into the relevant law – at least when we’re dealing with so-called ‘secondary producers’ and distributors, as opposed to original producers. This component of scienter is required by the First Amendment since these sexual exploitation statutes separate constitutionally protected images from criminal contraband. The knowledge element, therefore, makes all the difference to secondary producers (e.g. – webmasters) but doesn’t do much to assist the content producers on the front lines (e.g. – photographers, videographers). However, depending on the skill of your lawyer, and your company’s age verification protocols, you may be able to convince a jury to ‘pardon’ your violation through an acquittal, even if a technical offense has occurred.
Scenario: You’re an adult entertainment photographer. You create images that are purchased by and distributed to various adult websites. You have a robust age verification system in place for all of your models and implement that practice to a tee, but one of the models slips through the system with fake identification and turns out to be underage. For argument’s sake, let’s say the stars are aligned, you get the best defense attorney money can buy, the most compassionate prosecutor known to man, a jury that takes note of the inequities in the law, and you make it through the ordeal without federal child pornography charges ruining your name or your business. Sorry, you’re not out of the woods quite yet.
In 2006, 18 U.S.C. § 2255, also known as “Masha’s Law,” was created to provide a civil remedy for a minor to recover damages resulting from his or her injury as a victim of child pornography. The statute allows the minor to bring a cause of action against any person who possessed, distributed, or produced the unlawful material. Notably, bringing a suit under § 2255 does not require that the defendant be criminally convicted of any child pornography violation.
Many states have closely paralleled their ‘harmful to minors’ statutes to the federal laws, and in recent years have taken to amending those statutes to address various levels of civil liability as well. One of the most burdensome sets of child pornography civil liability laws come out of the State of Florida. Section 847.01357 Fla. Stat. (2010), requires a plaintiff to prove that: (1) the minor plaintiff was a victim of a sexual abuse crime; (2) a portion of the sexual abuse crime was used in the production of child pornography; and (3) the plaintiff suffered personal or psychological injury as a result of the production, promotion, or possession of such materials. Given the tremendous degree of subjectivity encompassed within the realm of a “personal or psychological injury,” it often proves difficult for a defendant to dispute the applicability of this statute. If a Florida court believes that a minor has participated in the creation of adult materials, regardless of his or her willful misrepresentation of age, the act is considered “child pornography.” Therefore, a § 847.01357 violation is likely imminent, as "child exploitation" is purportedly a strict liability crime and lack of knowledge of the victim's age is not recognized as a defense. Many state courts are protective of minors and tend to ‘throw the book’ at adults who engage in sexual activity with minors, even if the minor consents or produces a fake ID. Juries don’t like child pornographers much either – regardless of the circumstances. It is this type of ‘compelling interest’ in defending children from sexual activity and exploitation that fosters the protective mentality that warrants a court finding injury to a minor based on his or her involvement in adult content, despite consent or intentional misrepresentation of age, since the minor is deemed too young or immature to know any better.
One recommendation for websites operating as ‘service providers’ such as escort directories, forums, and other user generated content sites: Consider registering as an online service provider under federal child pornography reporting laws. Title 18 U.S.C. 2258A outlines the process and the requirements for reporting and registration. While not a bulletproof shield against liability, it does help show that you are trying to cooperate in the effort to stem the distribution of child pornography, and may trigger certain legal immunities enjoyed by service providers.
The heightened attention on child pornography production in recent years, coupled with several states passing aforementioned civil liability statutes, makes continued litigation in this arena a virtual certainty. Minors eventually become adults, and learn that they may be able to financially benefit from any involvement they may have had in erotic imagery, when they were underage. Several content producers have recently learned the hard way about the unforgiving nature of these civil liability statutes. The current legal environment warrants an intensive re-evaluation of any adult company’s age verification procedures, in consultation with their attorney. Given the serious criminal and civil consequences resulting from producing any underage material, adult content producers are cautioned to be vigilant in every sense when it comes to age verification, as this is definitely a case where ignorance is not bliss.
Back to the Future -Hatch Calls for More Obscenity Prosecutions Just in Time for the Presidential Bids
Gas up the DeLorean, because Orrin Hatch is taking us back to 1984. “As the toxic waste of obscenity continues to spread and harm everyone it touches, it appears the Obama administration is giving up without a fight.” The previous sentence is part of a statement issued by Senator Orrin Hatch last week in the wake of his very public, very brazen call to the Department of Justice to increase obscenity prosecutions.
Hatch, the Republican Senator representing Utah, along with House Representatives Mike McIntyre (D-NC) and Randy Forbes (R-VA), sponsored the letters to the DOJ, effectually calling out the Obama Administration’s lack of “vigorous enforcement” of obscenity laws; one to his legislative colleagues and one to Attorney General Eric Holder. The letter to Holder, signed by dozens of Senate members, demands that the Department of Justice and the FBI step-up their efforts in prosecuting producers and distributors of “hardcore adult pornography.”
The letter urges General Holder to examine the evidence gathered by sources like www.pornographyharms.com, in order to fully comprehend the “crisis” caused by adult obscenity and “urgent need” for action by the government. Incidentally, the website referenced in Hatch’s letter is operated by anti-porn crusader, Patrick Trueman, CEO of Morality in Media and Director of the War on Illegal Pornography Coalition. If you still think there’s a glimmer of possible impartiality located within the “evidence” (let’s use that term loosely, shall we) provided via www.pornographyharms.com, take a look at Trueman’s press release on Hatch’s letter where he references the “grave social costs documented by a plethora of researchers at www.pornographyharms.com and at a groundbreaking conference held by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton University entitled, ‘The Social Costs of Pornography’.” The Witherspoon Institute? The same Witherspoon Institute that brought us such neutral and fair-minded studies and literary masterpieces like, ‘Politics & the Devil’, ‘Medieval Wisdom for Modern Universities’, ‘Where in the Constitution is the Separation of Church & State?’ and who can forget ‘Did Pius XII Lie to Save the Jews?’.
But as much as we’d like to pretend that this is yet another divine alliance between the consistently overlapping groups of Republicans and religious conservatives, it is most definitely not. Several democrats, including the unexpected addition of Dianne Feinstein of California, signed on in support of Hatch’s demands. Feinstein’s backing of the letter comes as a surprise given the fact that the adult industry companies the letter is targeting are the very same businesses comprising her southern California constituency. When asked to comment on Feinstein’s involvement in this new resurgence against obscenity, a spokesperson for the Senator pointed to her support of “several measures targeting child pornography in recent years” – which of course provides a crystal clear explanation for jumping on the witch-hunt bandwagon targeting completely lawful speech engaged in by adults.
Even more disturbing might be Hatch’s extremist allegations that “experts warn” pornography is related to sexual harassment, violence against women and sex trafficking. As if the Orwellian undertones of the letter aren’t enough, Hatch is channeling us back to the 80s with over-broad, feminist far-left propaganda, reminiscent of the Dworkin-MacKinnon Era anti-porn crusade. Note: unsuccessful anti-porn crusade.
An Assistant Attorney General has responded to the allegations of being “soft on porn” with a letter of reply, stating that the DOJ has made the realistic decision to focus its “limited investigative and prosecutorial resources on the most egregious cases, particularly those that facilitate child exploitation…” Given the DOJ’s unsuccessful attempt at its last high profile obscenity trial against Evil Angel owner, John Stagliano, it’s really no wonder that the DOJ decided to turn its attention to prosecuting media involving children as opposed to consenting adults. Stagliano’s obscenity trial last July, which resulted in a judgment of acquittal on all counts, was likely the final nail in the coffin for the now-defunct Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. The Task Force was a special Justice Department unit set up during the first Bush administration as a result of conservatives reacting to the abundance of allegedly obscene material available on the Internet. This recent disbanding of the DOJ’s ‘Porn Police’ may have been exactly what Orrin Hatch was waiting for to drop his bomb on Capitol Hill. Between Hatch’s demands for action on the DOJ and the fact that the 2012 presidential bids are being tossed around; is it possible the next year or so could provide the perfect storm for a resurgence of the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force?
Given the vagueness of the Obama Administration’s stance on obscenity prosecution, the possibility of a Republican taking over in 2012 leads to thoughts of a Reagan-era anti-pornography agenda renaissance. How likely is it that the incumbent will be able to stave off the Republicans for another four years; obviously everyone in every industry has their own prediction, but we all know it’s too soon to tell. However, with Obama’s approval rating plummeting daily and the GOP’s recent accusations that the democrats aren’t taking the budget crisis seriously enough, it’s not so far-fetched to see Obama throwing the conservatives a bone by entertaining Hatch’s demands in the near future. What would Trump do?
Notably, as this blog post goes to print, reports of adult filmmaker, Ira Isaacs, having been indicted on five new obscenity charges are hitting the newswire. These latest indictments join Isaacs’s three previous obscenity charges originating in 2006. Originally slated to go to trial in 2008, the case was postponed due to the controversial recusal of Judge Alex Kozinski. The trial, now set for May of this year, could commence within days of Isaacs’s arraignment on the new obscenity counts, unless his defense attorney can push off the trial again, in light of the new charges. Is this latest news pure coincidence or a knee-jerk reaction by Obama’s DOJ to the news of the day? Let’s sincerely hope that it’s the former because it’s a little disconcerting that the Attorney General might find it more damaging to be considered “soft on porn” than proceeding with a baseless fishing expedition against an easy target for the sole purpose of flexing his judicial muscles in some inter-branch, alpha-politician contest with Orrin Hatch.
So how does all this ambiguity ultimately affect the adult industry? This industry has traditionally been used as a tool in political agendas, unfortunately resulting in the First Amendment as the inevitable loser all too often. As referenced earlier in this post, Republican administrations going as far back as Reagan, have displayed blatant aggressiveness against the adult industry, citing the same ‘moral decay of society’-type rationale currently demonstrated by Senator Hatch and his supporters. On the other hand, the Democratic Party has traditionally been more receptive to the adult industry in general, but if recent years have shown anything, it’s that ‘liberal’ does not necessarily mean ‘libertarian.’ And now, especially with Capitol Hill reeling from some of the most volatile bipartisan infighting this country has seen in decades, one can’t help but wonder if adult entertainment is going to be a scapegoat yet again. So batten down the “Hatch’s” and get ready for another round.
*Note: This article was drafted with the purpose of addressing all political agendas affecting the adult entertainment industry and in no way was intended to act as a political endorsement of any candidate. It should also be noted that the author is not associated with any election campaigns or a member of any political part
COICA: Friend or Foe?
Between the entertainment industry honing in on infringers and the current presidential administration looking to “crack down” on illegal content online, it’s no wonder that Senator Leahy’s “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act” (COICA) has been making headlines again the last few months.
Briefly, COICA enables the Attorney General to institute an in rem action against the domain name of a website deemed to be “dedicated to infringing activities.” This means, if a site “engages in” any type of infringing activities where such activities, if “taken together” are “central to the activity” of the site, the site is in violation of COICA. Upon a finding of infringement, courts are authorized to issue injunctions against the domain name itself (as opposed to the registrant of the domain name), which may consist of ordering the domain name’s registrar and registry to “lock” the domain name. This “lock” effectively bans access to the site via the domain name. Courts would also be authorized to enjoin any “operator of a nonauthoritative domain name server,” a definition that could potentially extend liability to Internet Service Providers, requiring the operator to “take technically feasible and reasonable steps designed to prevent [the] domain name from resolving to that domain name’s Internet protocol address.”
Many believe that the problem with COICA lies in its lax due process procedures, as a U.S. court can essentially shut down a website operated anywhere in the world without an judicial determination of illegal activities or any application of structured dispute resolution. Most jurisdictions would call such a process an unlawful prior restraint on speech, but Senator Leahy and his supporters are taking a route we’ve seen all too often in recent years, with the mentality of ‘if you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.’
Although the Obama Administration has made copyright enforcement a key issue in the last two years, the feds have really been bringing on the heat, recently. The reasoning? Supposedly to promote economic growth and competition, job creation and protection of American innovation. One can’t help but look at such an altruistic statement with a healthy dose of skepticism when massive legislation like COICA pops up and the witness list endorsing the Act in Senate Committee hearing are corporate giants like the Go Daddy, Visa and Verizon.
So what about free speech? What about censorship? What about the right of ISP’s, domain registrars, domain owners, payment processors, and advertising associates to not have to cut off all services to a website simply because the site has been accused of something? As the Electronic Freedom Foundation has pointed out, the fact that the government can block the whole domain and not just the infringing “portion” of the site is what fuels the censorship fire. Critics also cite to the fact that copyright owners have already been provided the means to combat online infringement via the DMCA. EFF has stated, and probably accurately so, that
“COICA streamlines and vastly expands [misuse of DMCA provisions resulting in damage to fair use and free expression]; it would allow the Attorney General to shoot down a whole domain including all the blog posts, images, backups, and files underneath it. In other words, it's not just possible but probable that a great deal of legitimate, protected speech will be taken down in the name of copyright enforcement.”
Leahy’s quote that, “There's no First Amendment right that protects thieves […]” sums up the rebuttal, I suppose. It’s true that not all communications fall into the realm of protected speech, but is shutting down a communicative business without any recourse to an adversarial hearing, and possibly extending that same liability to its business affiliates, the most reasonable way to regulate theft of IP? Supporters claim that the legislative intent of the Act is to block sites whose principal business purpose involves engaging in blatant IP infringement, not those who utilize material protected by fair use or “accidentally link to a copyrighted image.” Simple enough, right? It’s not like the federal government is trying to pass a bill unabashedly resulting in Internet censorship and effectually extending U.S. Attorney General jurisdiction to, well, everywhere. Oh, wait…
And what about that proposed legislation that would allow the President to push a button to shut down the Internet?
It’s too soon to tell for sure if COICA will go through, and Senator Leahy most certainly continues an uphill battle. But with an issue like global Internet regulation and the kind of conglomerate lobbying that COICA is garnering in Washington, this whole thing has to make even the most faithful supporter of the American political system ask themselves, ‘Is this going to be a case of money talks and freedom walks?’