Since June 25, typing the domain http://www.myredbook.com into an address bar will not bring up an online escort service as before. Instead, you get a warning from the FBI and the IRS that says the domain name has been seized.
My Red Book operator Eric “Red” Omuro and assistant Annemarie “Maddie” Lanoce were arrested on charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering and their site was shut down. Official government notice is all that remains of what was once ad space, message boards, sex worker reviews and rates, and other resources for prostitutes and their would-be clients.
Regardless of what you think of prostitution, taking a website before a conviction for any crime should make people extremely uncomfortable.
My Red Book was, under its front of a strip club review site, actually a place for sex workers to communicate with each other about health concerns, legal issues, and unsafe or untrustworthy clients. There was a stable community of people which could help in reducing the safety concerns that come with any industry which is driven underground.
Prostitution still exists. But now these people will now have a harder time sharing information. Nothing has been practically gained here.
The federal seizure of My Red Book is not unique. The last several years have seen controversy over FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) domain name taking. DHS’s actions tended to be over copyright violation allegations. Domain taking falls to the department because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) falls under the enormous DHS umbrella.
Under pressure from heavy-hitting trade groups such as the Recording Industry Artists of America and the NFL, copyright claims become dire enough to justify censorship.
The DHS’s arguably unlawful hastiness in taking some of these sites was so worrisome that back in in August, 2012, several members of Congress sent letters of complaint to then-Secretary Janet Napolitano, as well as to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Nothing substantial was done Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from individuals (such as the late Aaron Schwartz, a transparency activist) to ascertain the legal basis for this kind of taking often came back with redactions, or pricey fees for the printed documents.
My Red Book was partially taken under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) as well as other forfeiture legislation. RICO began as a reasonable-sounding way to bring down mobsters who use legitimate businesses as fronts for their illicit dealings. The government decided it needed a way to take assets from these people, so that that profits couldn’t simply be hidden behind legal enterprises.
But during the 1980s, when the drug war hysteria peaked, loosening of civil asset forfeiture standards increased the ability of government to take cash, cars, or even homes and businesses belonging to individuals suspected of drug crime. No conviction, no charges even necessary. Sometimes all you needed was a suspicious amount of cash — over $10 thousand dollars would do it.
Most of the FBI indictment of My Red Book is a listing of $5 million in bank account contents, cars, and other assets to be taken from Omuro. The FBI press release has a token reassurance at the bottom that the suspects are of innocent until proven guilty.
Except, are they? This pre-punishment is all too common under the U.S.’s justice system today. It happens every time someone doesn’t get a speedy trial. It certainly happens to numerous recipients of SWAT raids on private homes, especially the kind that injure people. And again, civil asset forfeiture can involve simply taking cash from a person after a traffic stop in which no contraband was found, but a vague suspicion appeared in the mind of the law enforcement officer.
What else is any of this but punishment before a conviction? With many of these strong-arm tactics, the victims are unsympathetic or lawless enough that the feds (or police) are able to get away with trampling basic constitutional rights.
The warning on My Red Book states that domain names count as property, therefore they can be taken under racketeering laws. But that is a wide and rocky road towards censorship which needs to be challenged.
A website is speech, like anything analog. Shutting one down without due process is nothing more than censorship.
Just because the federal government wants to shield our eyes from prostitution doesn’t mean we should let it — and certainly not at the cost of our First Amendment rights.