SAN FRANCISCO — This week's FBI seizures of MyRedbook.com and SFRedbook.com have created a dangerous precedent that could eventually impair the safe operations of all websites that include objectionable content, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance.
The seizures also question how far operators can go in claiming immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 gives immunity from the actions of third-party customers at user-generated websites and specifically says service providers can't be "treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
But Section 230 states that it doesn't "impair the enforcement" of federal criminal laws, and this week's shutdown of the sites were preceded by a grand jury indictment of its operators — Eric Omuro of Mountain View, Calif., and Annmarie Lanoce of Rocklin, Calif. — on charges of using the mail and the Internet to facilitate prostitution.
Omuro also was charged with 24 counts of money laundering. According to the indictment, Omuro engaged in more than 20 monetary transactions to launder profits derived from the facilitation of prostitution.
The indictment seeks the forfeiture of more than $5 million in property and money derived from the facilitation of prostitution, as well as the Internet domain names MyRedbook.com and SFRedbook.com, which already have been seized.
Federal prosecutors said that Omuro and Lanoce were complicit with prostitution involvement, listing acronyms for sex acts in a "Terms and Acronyms" section of the site and offering menus of sexual services, hourly and nightly rates and customer reviews.
Prosecutors also pointed to VIP memberships that allowed customers "access to 'private forums' and heightened capabilities to search reviews of the prostitution services."
This week, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation blasted the websites' seizures and declared that everyone should be concerned about it.
"The seizure is part of a disturbing trend of targeting sex workers, but more than that, it is an attack on the rights to free speech and free association exercised by a diverse group of people, many of whom have nothing to do with the alleged crimes," the group said in a statement.
"These sites were essential tools for First Amendment protected speech and association — especially important for a community that values its privacy for a variety of legitimate reasons. This platform has been pulled out from under the feet of this community.
The EFF noted that to compound the destruction of the websites, its users now have cause to worry that their private information, such as IP addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses, may be in the hands of the FBI.
Another group, Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, also condemned the government's targets. The group cited the First Amendment and human rights concerns for its stance.
"This is a textbook example of prior restraint on speech," the group said. "Seizure of a social networking forum such as MyRedBook.com, prior to any proof of guilt or opportunity to be heard, violates fundamental notions of due process, the presumption of innocence and freedom of speech.
"Additionally, this sets a dangerous precedent and no website will be safe if the government can shut it down based purely on objection to its content."
Encino, Calif.-based attorney Allan Gelbard, who devotes much of his practice defending First Amendment rights as an adult industry lawyer, agreed with both the EFF and Woodhull
"The problem with domain seizures is that they censor all the speech on the website, including that which is undeniably protected by the First Amendment," Gelbard told XBIZ. "They are clearly a prior restraint and, as the Supreme Court stated in Near vs. Minnesota back in 1931, those come before the court with a 'heavy presumption against ... constitutional validity.'
"Hopefully the owners of the site have the financial ability to fight what appears to be a serious government overreach," Gelbard said.
News of the seizures and arrests came the same week as two U.S. senators introduced legislation that could have a significant impact on online adult sites by imposing extensive recordkeeping requirements for adult advertising.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Mark Kirk introduced the Senate version of the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act that would create federal criminal liability for online content publishers who host ads related to child trafficking.
SAVE, with its focus on web platforms that offers sexual services and personal ads, would make it a federal crime to host an advertisement that "facilitates or is designed to facilitate" sex acts with anyone under 18 years old.
The bill introduces extensive requirements, similar to the 18 U.S.C. 2257 recordkeeping rules for adult producers, that would broadly implicate advertising network service providers, including third-party brokers of online or wireless advertising who offer banners, sponsorships, email, keyword searches and slotting fees.
Hosts of online adult ads would be required to review ads before publication and obtain a government-issued photo ID from the person who created the ads and any people appearing in them.
For Omuro and Lanoce, evidence in the case against them remains a bit murky. Prosecutors have not detailed allegations against the pair, and they have not commented.
Both, however, have entered not guilty pleas to the charges at San Francisco federal court.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael M. Cousins on Wednesday ordered Omuro and Lanoce back to court July 17 for a check on the status of property to be posted as security for appearance bonds.