Criminal Conviction Under FOSTA Triggers Adult Industry Worries

Criminal Conviction Under FOSTA Triggers Adult Industry Worries

DALLAS — Wilhan Martono, a San Francisco-area man who owned the adult classified ads website CityXGuide, pleaded guilty and was sentenced by a Texas court on Monday to more than eight years in prison for violating FOSTA-SESTA, with a 60-month concurrent sentence for conspiracy to violate the Travel Act.

As XBIZ reported, Martono was arrested in June 2020 in Fremont, California by federal authorities, following his indictment in Texas earlier that month, in the most high-profile multi-state legal action since the shuttering of Backpage.com in 2018.

Martono's arrest and the seizure of CityXGuide by authorities, who replaced the website with a law-enforcement placard, was the first such raid since President Donald Trump signed the FOSTA/SESTA legislative package into law in April 2018. The Backstage.com raids and seizures predated Trump's signature ceremony by a few days.

Noted adult industry attorney and First Amendment expert Lawrence Walters, of the Walters Law Group, told XBIZ that the CityXGuide criminal prosecution — and the numerous civil cases filed against online platforms based on FOSTA/SESTA — highlight “the importance of the constitutional challenge pending in the DC Circuit.”

Oral arguments for the Woodhull challenge to FOSTA/SESTA, which Walters is handling, are scheduled for Jan. 11, 2023.

“If the law is not struck down,” Walters warned, “the adult industry is likely to see continued enforcement in civil and criminal proceedings, and expanding censorship of erotic expression by platforms and internet architecture providers.”

A Texas Allegation That Prompted a California Arrest

The Texas indictment against Martono was filed June 2, 2020 and included 28 federal charges, among them conspiracy, money laundering and promotion and facilitation of prostitution. Martono was extradited to Dallas, Texas by California authorities.

The indictment linked Martono to a network of adult-oriented websites like CityXGuide, BodyRubShop and variations on the name of the shuttered Backpage.com.

Prosecutors used a January 2019 email sent by Martono and expressing a desire to take over “from where Backpage left off” as damning evidence.

Prosecutors alleged that Martono first purchased CityXGuide in 2004, but stepped up his adult classifieds operation in 2018, after the government seizure of Backpage.com and the arrest of its owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. Lacey and Larkin have continued fighting the government’s case against them and their company on a variety of grounds, including Section 230 protections and First Amendment rights.

Sex worker advocacy groups have denounced FOSTA/SESTA and explained that shuttering online adult classified ad websites further endangers sex workers and forces them into the streets, where they are regularly victimized by law enforcement, or into the hands of criminal enterprises.

The case against Martono, Walters told XBIZ, was “the first time the government has used FOSTA for criminal prosecution,” whereas the Woodhull case, which he is handling, is “a civil challenge to the constitutionality of FOSTA.”

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