Prostitution and the Internet: Interview with Mike Godwin
The following was written by Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in response to an inquiry by PENet.
1. What laws prohibit advertising sexual services for $ on the Internet.
Would state laws prohibiting solicitation apply. What federal laws would
In general, federal jurisdiction is limited to those crimes that involve
interstate commerce in some way, or that use a mechanism of interstate
commerce. Although there is no general federal anti-prostitution law, it's
against federal law to travel in interstate commerce to commit an act of
prostitution, and it's against federal law to use a means of interstate
commerce to solicit "unlawful activity", which is defined in 18 USC 1952
as including prostitution in violation of state laws.
So, you can see, the federal and state laws interact in an interesting
The states' solicitation statutes would also reach any attempt at
solicitation over the Internet, and unlike the federal statute, they don't
require any interstate-commerce element. Even solicitation over a local
computer BBS or local-area network (LAN) would qualify.
Note: advocacy of prostitution *in general* or advocacy of
decriminalization qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment.
Similarly, "how-to" information (such as how to go into business for
yourself as a call girl) would be protected.
The interesting question would be one in which a house in a state where
prostitution is legal puts an ad up on the Internet. Could you e-mail from
California that you want an appointment at a brothel in Reno? My guess is
that this would be legal.
2. Which enforcement agencies would address the above cases and under which laws? Local police? FBI? other? Have you heard of any enforcement along these lines?
FBI would be the primary agency dealing with general solicitation on the
Internet. Secret Service, the other main computer cops, has no
jurisdiction under 18 USC 1952 (the "promoting unlawful activities"
State police agencies (Georgia's GBI, for example, or NY's state police)
would have jurisdiction over any crime in which at least one element of
the crime (including solicitation) occurred within state boundaries.
Ditto for local police.
3. What sort of system would police develop to enforce these laws? What I
mean is...Currently police entrap prostitutes and clients by offering sexual
services for money. If the prostitute agrees (in California), she has
committed a crime. (To obtain a conviction, and "act of furtherance" is
necessary...but that's a long story...)
I'm guessing they might use the network to set up an assignation, then
arrest whoever showed up.
4. Are there any protections that would discourage police from becoming cyber
decoys? I have heard that many officers enjoy playing computer games at the
station during work hours. This form of entrapment could be that sort of
I doubt they're staying after hours to play this game--fortunately, the
skills it takes to hang out on the Internet are greater than the ones it
takes to play Sega.
Basically, if I were a sex worker, I'd avoid
using the Net to meet new
clients--my guess is that sex workers are less
likely to run afoul of law enforcement
if they use it solely for more general
purposes, or to stay in
contact with known clients.
(Please note: This is not legal advice; it's
simply a risk assessment.)
5. Commercial activities are discouraged...but is that just on discussion
groups. I imagine bulletin boards could be developed on which pros could
post ads. (Alt. sex.services is mostly client discussion.)
Basically, your understanding is correct here. Commerce is okay, so long
as it's confined to appropriate newsgroups.
6. It seems that many sex workers feel that we may find allies on the net
because of the free speech issues (among other reasons). Any comments on that?
I think the Net has a strong Libertarian bias, so that sex workers would
likely find a more appreciative audience there. At the same time, it's a
locus of increasing law-enforcement interest, which makes it more likely
that any attempt to do sex-work-related commerce openly will draw
unwelcome attention, either from cops or from those who like to report
people to the police.
7. What are the legal implcations of trying to keep track of and share
information about rapists and those who are violent to sex workers in a
database, which could be accessed by sex workers?
The only real risk is libel, and that's not much of a risk since a) your
data would not be generally available to the community, so it wouldn't
harm a client's general reputation, and b) if you were nonnegligent in
gathering and verifying the information, you wouldn't be liable even if
it were to become generally known that So-and-so is said by the database
to be an abusive client.
I'd say risks of that sort are pretty minimal.
An aggressive prosecutor might try to characterize such a network as a
criminal conspiracy, but I think so long as the information there is not
aimed at solicitation or conspiracy to commit crimes, but instead is
focused on listing known dangerous persons, there could be no legal
prosecution of the enterprise.
firstname.lastname@example.org- Wed Feb 1, 1995