Melissa Gira Grant and Mike Masnick Slam DOJ’s CityXGuide Bust

Mike and Melissa
Melissa Gira Grant and Mike Masnick. (Cropped from original Grant photo by re:publica via Flickr; Masnick by Joel Sage via Flickr)
New Republic journalist Melissa Gira Grant and Mike Masnick, editor of Techdirt, tag-team the DOJ, revealing the big lie behind the feds' phony war on "sex trafficking."

Great scribes sometimes think alike, and when it comes to the U.S. Department of Justice’s June 19 takedown of the adult ad site CityXGuide.com, New Republic writer Melissa Gira Grant andTechdirt editor Mike Masnick are in agreement: the federal government is full of the brown stuff when it comes to its phony war on “sex trafficking.”

In separate posts to their respective outlets, Grant and Masnick, two of the sharpest intellects on the web today, each lambaste an announcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas on the DOJ’s website, which explains that the feds had expunged CityXGuide from the internet and charged the site’s alleged owner and operator, Wilhan Martono, with 28 counts involving the facilitation of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking.

Full of the usual grandstanding and fulsome self-praise, the government’s press release claims that it has eradicated a website “promoting prostitution and sex trafficking,” using for the first time the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), the controversial 2018 law that effectively outlawed all adult ads in the U.S.

FOSTA was signed by President Trump just days after the feds’ takedown of the online listings giant Backpage.com, which the feds accomplished by using a different statute, the U.S. Travel Act. Both Grant and Masnick note that it took the government two years to finally use FOSTA, but that in doing so, the government further endangered the already-precarious lives of sex workers.

Masnick writes in his post that the DOJ “conveniently mashes together sex work and sex trafficking” in its propaganda and prosecutions, though the “immediate reaction” to news of the bust was that “plenty of non-trafficked sex workers” who used the site to screen customers will now be imperiled.

To bolster this point, Masnick quotes a press release on the CityXGuide seizure from the group Hacking/Hustling, an anti-FOSTA sex worker collective that includes adult film actress Lorelei Lee.

In the release, Lee states:

When we are re-envisioning public safety, this is a perfect example of why we can’t exempt human trafficking. Instead of resources going to real investigations or victim support, you have six agencies spending time and resources reading ads and looking for the word ‘blow job.’

Grant, author of the book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, takes aim in her piece at the mainstream media, which predictably regurgitated the government’s press release on the CityXGuide seizure, sometimes verbatim.

With a jaundiced eye, Grant observes that “newspapers do love a good ‘Feds Take Down Sex Trafficking’ story, even if there are no sex traffickers actually taken down.”

Concerning Martono, the accused, Grant explains,

The man in question, however, was not charged with being a sex trafficker himself. He is accused of operating a website called CityXguide, among several others, which ran advertisements for sex work. His unsealed criminal indictment describes the site as ‘a leading source of prostitution advertisements.’ He faces up to 25 years in prison for offenses defined in the 2018 law—the ‘Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act’ . . . which made websites liable for any content posted by their users that “facilitates” prostitution. The president congratulated himself for his toughness in signing the law, which, to date, has largely resulted in impoverishing sex workers and making anti-trafficking investigations more difficult, perhaps even leading to their decline.

Once an Ally . . .

Despite the government’s persistent conflation of the terms “prostitution” and “sex trafficking,” they are two very different things.

Usually a local offense, “prostitution” refers to voluntary sex work among consenting adults. Whereas, federal law defines “sex trafficking” as involuntary sex work — either involving minors, who cannot consent, or adults, through fraud, force or coercion.

Though the feds’ press release posits CityXGuide as a successor to Backpage, the two sites and their respective cases are wildly dissimilar.

For instance, the feds’ indictment paints CityXGuide, and its affiliated websites, as a one-man band, primarily focused on ads regarding sex work. Backpage was a much larger operation and, like Craigslist.org, included ads posted to the site by users for an array of ordinary goods and services, such as car sales, apartments for rent, want ads, etc.

Reportedly, less than one-third of the many millions of ads on Backpage fell into the site’s adult category, and these were for putatively legal services: escorts, fetish, phone sex, striptease and the like. Sex-for-money references were forbidden, and Backpage employed both computer and human moderation to scan for more than 26,000 banned terms, phrases, URLs and email addresses.

According to one defense filing in the ongoing criminal case against, Backpage’s former owners — veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin — the site “blocked or removed” more than 1 million posts in April 2012, reporting some 400 posts that same month to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) on suspicion that the listings might be connected to sex trafficking.

Furthermore, during the 14 years of Backpage’s existence, state and federal courts consistently found that adult ads on the site were protected by the First Amendment as well as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the federal law that generally holds interactive websites harmless for content posted by others.

Grant and Masnick each make the point that in the run-up to FOSTA’s passage, members of Congress insisted that FOSTA, which included an exception to Section 230, was needed to prosecute Backpage.

But, as noted above, the feds seized Backpage before FOSTA became law, using existing statues to falsely indict the ex-owners for the facilitation of prostitution, as well as money laundering and conspiracy.

Masnick writes:

The charges against [Backpage’s] founders did not include sex trafficking charges. Also, as the details have come out about Backpage, it’s become evident that rather than facilitating sex trafficking, the company was actively working with law enforcement to find and arrest sex traffickers. However, where they started to push back on law enforcement was when law enforcement wanted to go after non-trafficked sex workers.

This is true. Backpage had a standing policy of complying with subpoenas within 24 hours of receipt and assigned an executive to oversee that task. Backpage execs cooperated extensively with cop shops around the nation, as well as with the FBI, to track down and prosecute actual sex traffickers, and to rescue minors from exploitation.

This earned the company numerous attaboys from police officers, as well as a certificate of commendation from the FBI in 2011, signed by then-Director Robert Mueller.

Damned if You Do or Don’t

In an Orwellian twist, this same cooperation, including officers of the company testifying on behalf of the prosecution in trials of sex traffickers and pimps across the country, is being used by government attorneys as supposed evidence that Lacey and Larkin (who sold the site in 2015) were aware of acts of prostitution connected to adult ads on the site.

However, government filings in the CityXGuide case allege that Martono, an Indonesian citizen living in the U.S., “never responded” to cop inquiries or to “grand jury subpoenas and legal process served” in various law enforcement investigations.

“Instead,” the government document states, “Martono actively worked to disguise his involvement in the websites, including by using a [Virtual Private Network] to mask his IP address and listing the contact information for a property management firm in Hong Kong under the ‘Contact Us’ section of the website.”

Of course, using a VPN is a pretty common security precaution these days, and it is hardly indicative of illegal activity.

Moreover, in a reply to government’s filing, Martono’s attorney disputes the government’s characterization of his client’s response to law enforcement.

The government presents no evidence that any government official ever tried to contact Mr. Martono at his home, either by postal mail, phone, or in person, before his arrest. The government does not show that Mr. Martono had actual notice of any investigation or subpoena. It appears the first time the government attempted to make personal contact with Mr. Martono, they found him at the same home where he has lived with his family for many years.

As for Backpage, it’s uncontested that the company had corporate offices in Dallas and did not hide from the law, likely because everything the company was doing had been vetted, heavily, by the site’s attorneys. The company vindicated itself in court on several occasions by defeating legal attacks against it, winning at the appellate level and even overturning state laws in three states targeting the site.

In fact, Lacey and Larkin’s attorneys, aware that a federal grand jury had been investigating their clients, told prosecutors at one point that if an indictment came, the two men would be willing to turn themselves in. That’s precisely what they did when now-Senator/then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris brought bogus pimping charges against the pair, charges that were thrown out not once, but twice by two different state court judges.

But the feds chose the shock and awe approach, storming the men’s homes with guns drawn oin April 6, 2018, decked out in SWAT gear more appropriate for raiding the Symbionese Liberation Army headquarters than the residences of two men of retirement age, with no criminal records, who were accused of white collar crimes.

COINTELPRO for Sex Work

They ain’t the only ones facing the government’s wrath in this ongoing moral panic over sex trafficking. Grant reports that the FBI has focused its Sauron-like eye on the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project Behind Bars (SWOP Behind Bars), a group that promotes harm reduction and advocates for the decriminalization of all adult consensual sex work.

Seems the feds discovered an email from SWOP Behind Bars on a sex workers’ phone after arresting her. The email warned sex workers about a nationwide federal prostitution sting and gave tips on what to do should they face arrest. As a result, according to Grant, the FBI made the group “the subject of an FBI ‘Situational Information Report,'” which apparently warns agents about the organization’s activities.

What is this, the FBI’s version of COINTELPRO for advocates of sex worker rights?

SWOP Behind Bars’ executive director, Alex Andrews, is one of the litigants in a lawsuit brought by human rights organizations against the federal government, which challenges the constitutionality of FOSTA.

Coincidence? In January, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found that Andrews has standing in the suit because FOSTA criminalizes facilitating or promoting prostitution, terms so broad that they could encompass the sort of discussions and sharing of information among sex workers that occurs on a site Andrews helps run, Ratethatrescue.org.

Writing for the majority, Judge Judith Rogers found that there was, despite the government’s claims to the contrary, “ample reason to conclude that the threat of future enforcement against Andrews is substantial.”

Indeed, the FBI’s “Situational Information Report” on SWOP Behind Bars seems to confirm Rogers’ opinion that simply by exercising their First Amendment rights, activists such as Andrews could run afoul of FOSTA.

That lawsuit is ongiong, with freedom of speech and sexual expression squarely in the sights of the FBI’s sniper scope.

And ICYMI, please see:
The Jokers . . . an opinion column by Michael Lacey
and
First Amendment First Down: Ninth Circuit Sets Date for Oral Arguments in Lacey/Larkin Case

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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