NEW YORK — Anger and outrage.
That’s what continues to grow in many circles in response to the raid this week on RentBoy.com, a site that allows escorts to pay to advertise themselves.
Federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security and officers from the NYPD on Tuesday raided the Manhattan headquarters of RentBoy.com after a criminal complaint was unsealed, alleging the male escort service’s CEO and six employees conspired to violate the Travel Act by promoting prostitution.
Six of the seven defendants made their initial appearances later in the day on Tuesday in federal court and were released on bonds ranging from $50,000 to $350,000. Each face five years in prison.
Federal authorities, later in the week, seized the company’s website and went after its assets.
The move to go after the gay hookup listing site, which has been in business for more than 15 years, has infuriated many who have vocalized that the raid was reminiscent of bathhouse raids and gay-bar roundups from the 1960s and ‘70s.
Lawrence Walters, an industry attorney who represents RentBoy.com along with attorney Gill Sperlein, told XBIZ today that the fallout over the raid, arrests and seizure of the website has been unrelenting, particularly after an article on the topic was published in The New York Times.
“I don’t think Department of Homeland Security expected this kind of response, but people are legitimately concerned about unfair targeting of the gay community,” Walters said.
“This raid comes at an odd time, when groups like Amnesty International, along with numerous LGBT organizations, have recently called for the worldwide decriminalization of prostitution, due to the human rights abuses it encourages,” Walters said. “DHS seems to be out of step with societal evolution on these issues, when a powerful group like Lambda Legal Defense Fund has taken the position that the RentBoy raid threatens our safety."
Walters said that an even more important issue is raised by this prosecution — the threat to online innovation and freedom of expression.
“Online service providers and advertising networks such as Rentboy.com will be unable to function if the law is interpreted to require constant policing of all communications posted by third parties, to ensure there are no references to illegal activities,” Walters said. “That is an unrealistic standard to be expected of any passive internet intermediary.
"Yet, by claiming that RentBoy.com, by allowing third-party advertisers to post to its servers, somehow facilitated prostitution, the government is announcing that it expects intensive scrutiny and monitoring of all internet traffic.
“Failing to catch a reference to solicitation or prostitution can lead a DHS investigator to conclude that the service provider is ‘facilitating’ the illegal conduct mentioned in the third party’s posting.”
Walters said a legal defense fund had been launched for Rentboy and its CEO, Jeff Hurant, at RentBoyFund.org
“The actions of DHS have left the company and Mr. Hurant with no ability to fund a defense, or pay for basic living expenses,” Walters said. “The government has destroyed an entire online business that had operated in the open for 15-plus years with no warning.”