ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Laws written long before the dawn of the Internet age have authorities across the nation struggling to prosecute online prostitution rings because of huge loopholes and defense lawyers’ claims that the websites are protected speech.
A case in point is a recent New Mexico case involving a retired professor and former college administrator who were accused in what police described as an extensive multistate, online prostitution ring, experts say.
The two were cleared after a judge ruled that state law said the website they operated didn’t constitute a “house of prostitution,” even though investigators said the men used the site to recruit prostitutes and promote prostitution.
The problem, legal experts say, stemmed from law enforcement officials trying to apply old prostitution laws in a high-tech world. And they say it happens in many states, with authorities struggling to prosecute websites as “brothels” or pinpoint where free speech ends and the facilitation of a crime begins. Further, the National Conference of State Legislatures says state legislatures aren’t actively working to update prostitution laws.
“Sometimes states’ laws are too specific and were written years ago, long before the Internet,” said Scott Cunningham, a Baylor University economics professor who has written about technology and prostitution. “That’s why we are seeing some successful challenges to laws when websites are involved.”
A big reason: Many websites function as screening services linking would-be prostitutes with potential customers, Cunningham said. That isn’t enough to charge website owners of a crime in some states.
Another barrier for states is a 1996 federal law that offers cover for some website owners by protecting them from third-party content, experts say.
Investigators said the New Mexico prostitution ring had a membership of 14,000, including 200 prostitutes. Members paid anywhere from $200 for one sex act to $1,000 for a full hour. Prostitutes were paid with cash, not through the website, according to police.
But State District Judge Stan Whitaker ruled that the website, an online message board, and the college administrator’s computer account did not constitute a “house of prostitution.” Whitaker also said the website wasn’t a “place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed.”
Jason Scott, program director of the National District Attorneys Association based in Alexandria, Va., said that although states’ laws vary, authorities can go after websites in other ways. For example, if authorities can clearly identify that a site is promoting prostitution, they can go after the Internet service provider address or use racketeering or corruption statutes to prosecute owners.
But Cunningham said authorities still face the challenge of trying to determine websites’ role in alleged prostitution crimes.
“What some of these sites are doing are screening prostitutes and screening potential customers, much like what pimps have historically done,” he said. “The question is: Can they be prosecuted like pimps?”