from the whac-a-mole dept
The Wall Street Journal has a report about how both the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are investigating three “massage and escort” sites accused of taking up where Backpage left off (that link is likely paywalled, but here’s a Gizmodo summary of the same article). The article is interesting in that it explores how these three sites — Rubmaps, Eros, and EroticMonkey — are believed to be connected with one guy, David Azzato, who “was convicted in France in 2011 of profiting from prostitution through a European network of escort-ad sites.” Azzato denies having anything to do with the sites, though the article highlights some evidence that at least suggests otherwise.
Either way, a few things struck me about the article. The first is the general futility of shutting down one or another such sites, because people move elsewhere:
“All three of those websites benefited substantially from the seizure of Backpage,” said Rob Spectre, ChildSafe.ai’s founder and chief executive.
In the article, it becomes quite clear that whoever is behind these sites — whether it’s Azzato or someone else entirely — has zero interest in working with the US government to prevent trafficking. Contrast that with the recent reports that Backpage seemed to bend over backwards to work with the feds to prevent sex trafficking on the site. It raises a big question about what the actual goal is here.
Of course, part of the issue is the same one that comes up over and over again in these discussions: consensual sex work is not the same thing as sex trafficking. It’s absolutely true that there can be overlap, but so much of this fight seems to break down along those lines. That was the point at which various reports suggest that Backpage’s execs tried to draw the line. They were happy to help the feds stop actual traffickers — but when some in the DOJ wanted to use Backpage to go after everyday consensual sex work, the execs said no.
And note that the Wall Street Journal piece seems to freely shift back and forth between prostitution and sex trafficking as if they’re identical. That makes it difficult to have a serious conversation about the goals and tactics being used here. Generally speaking, people seem to use the language of sex trafficking to push for the attacks on these sites, but when it comes down to details, they’re really just focused on prostitution.
A separate issue in the article is that it hints that the feds might go after American companies who provide services to the three sites in question (all of whom are based outside of the US):
It is true that website domains registered abroad may be outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement. But officials can request information from their U.S.-based technology providers and can seize those accounts through a court order, which could interrupt the websites’ operations. U.S. officials can also seek to prosecute individuals who own or run sites they allege are breaking U.S. laws.
Rubmaps, EroticMonkey and Eros all use San Francisco-based Cloudflare Inc., a web infrastructure and security company, according to domain records. Cloudflare didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Again, this seems like a pretty messed up way of going about all of this. Cloudflare is just providing some basic infrastructure and security services. If the feds think it makes sense to go after that company because some of its customers had illegal activities occurring on their websites, that opens up a whole bunch of serious questions about how deep the liability levels are supposed to go.
Filed Under: david azzato, dhs, doj, escorts, fosta, prostitution, sex trafficking
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