Feds Investigating Next Round Of Sites Accused Of Facilitating Sex Trafficking

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.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: david azzato, dhs, doj, escorts, fosta, prostitution, sex trafficking
Companies: cloudflare

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Michael, 19 Sep 2019 @ 10:30am


    "they never protected anyone at all!"

    That was never what they were trying to do.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.