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- U.S. The New York Times
In a case that could test the online pornography industry, the owners and two employees of two popular pornographic websites were charged this week with sex trafficking and other crimes, accused of coercing several women to engage in sex videos that were posted on the internet.According to a criminal complaint, the owners and employees "used deception and false promises" to lure women who had answered modeling advertisements on Craigslist to participate in the videos, telling them that their identities would be shielded and that the videos would not be posted online.The owners, Michael James Pratt, 36, and Matthew Isaac Wolfe, 37, and one employee, Ruben Andre Garcia, 31, were each charged with three counts of sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion.A second employee, Valorie Moser, 37, who the authorities said helped recruit the women, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion.Wolfe, Garcia and Moser pleaded not guilty. Wolfe and Garcia were being held in federal custody Friday and the authorities said Pratt had left the country and was considered a fugitive.Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia are currently on trial in a civil case in San Diego Superior Court that mirrors the criminal filing. In that case, 22 women said they were tricked into performing in internet pornography.Ed Chapin, the lead trial lawyer representing the 22 women, called the alleged scheme "outrageous.""It is despicable," he said, "and I am glad that the feds are stepping up and that they've seen it and are doing something about it."Corey D. Silverstein, a First Amendment lawyer based in Michigan whose practice is focused on issues of pornography and similar entertainment, said this was the first case he knew of in which a content producer was prosecuted under these types of charges."The government has a pretty high burden," he said. "They have to be able to show that someone knowingly recruited, enticed, harbored and patronized a person and then gained value from it." He said he was "not convinced the government has a case," adding, "Was the line crossed from content production to sex trafficking?"In court filings, Pratt and Wolfe, who own the websites GirlsDoPorn and GirlsDoToys, said the women had signed contracts that stated the videos they appeared in could be "used anywhere, anyhow, for any purpose."The women also recorded videotaped statements stating that they consented to the videos being used in any way and were not under the influence of drugs or mind-altering substances, according to civil filings from the defendants.Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami who is the president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, said many women in the pornography industry have lodged similar complaints of coercion but have not felt comfortable telling anyone. Or, she said, they were afraid that complaints would lead to their not working again."There's just a massive amount of fraud and coercion," said Franks, who coproduced a documentary about the world of amateur pornography. "It's a very welcome development that all porn companies will be put on notice that there is an appetite to investigate these cases."Significant criminal charges have not been brought by federal authorities against pornography producers for more than a decade. In 2008, Paul F. Little was sentenced to 46 months in jail after being convicted on multiple obscenity charges.Last year, a federal law strengthened the policing of sex trafficking online.Southern California, especially the San Fernando Valley, has historically been home to major pornography studios and producers, but the internet has made it possible for anyone with a cellphone camera to produce and upload explicit content. And the internet involves interstate commerce, which is regulated by the federal authorities."Traffickers use many ways to trick, coerce and manipulate," said Samantha Vardaman, vice president of Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization that seeks to rescue victims of sex trafficking. "These brave women suffered exploitation and exposure but they are using the legal remedies to get control back. With the extraordinary abuses of the internet, we will surely see more criminal activity like this."Mike South, a former pornography producer who has chronicled the inner workings of the business for his blog MikeSouth.com, said he hoped the case would encourage young women to exercise caution before answering online advertisements in the future."There might be a few girls that will read about it and take heed," he said.Brian Gross, who has worked closely with pornography producers and actors for more than two decades, applauded the criminal charges."I hope it makes people take this industry as a legitimate business," Gross said. "If you think you're going to come in here and behave in this kind of manner you know there will be consequences."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company
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