New US policy threatens global Web content

WWW- Strict US federal regulations that are scheduled to take effect tomottow could cripple many Internet porn sites and burden other sites with adult photos in personal ads or retail offerings.

Under the new rules, which expand the enforcement of an existing law known as 18 U.S.C. 2257, every Web site with explicit adult content — including sites that allow for member-generated content — must keep records proving the people portrayed in photos or videos are over the age of 18. Webmasters who don’t comply face federal prison terms.

Because of the borderless nature of the Internet, many other sites across the globe could be affected.

The adult entertainment industry and advocates for online speech and privacy are fighting the regulations and hoping to put them on hold by Thursday, when they’re scheduled to take effect.

But explicit sites, including many within the LGBT community, are already preparing for the worst. Some are busy updating their paperwork, while others plan to simply go out of business, at least temporarily, or move their operations offshore.

The Free Speech Coalition (FSC), an industry trade association, filed a federal lawsuit last week in Denver, requesting that a judge either throw out the new regulations or issue an injunction that would put them on hold.

A hearing on the coalition’s request is scheduled for Thursday. (PlanetOut Inc, owner of UK and, is a member of the FSC.)

The FSC argues that the new expanded rules are too strict, ignore the Constitution and violate the privacy of people depicted in the photos — whose real names, addresses and ages will find their way into the hands of countless webmasters.

“It’s so inclusive that it’s really absurd,” said Annalee Newitz, policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online rights group that opposes the new rules and plans to file a brief in support of the FSC.

She added that the guidelines could be interpreted to include news outlets that posted photos from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.

Will Doherty, executive director of the Online Policy Group in San Francisco, condemned the rules as a political attack.

“Unilaterally changing interpretation of the law to require that every Web site owner check and record IDs from all those who appear in explicit images is an outrageous attempt by a repressive administration to effectively halt the publication and exchange of many images of adults — including those of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — engaged in consensual explicit activity,” Doherty told the Network.

The US Department of Justice, however, has argued that the restrictions will boost the government’s ability to fight child pornography.

“People are absolutely freaking out,” said Keith Webb, vice president of Titan Media, which bills itself as the world’s largest producer of gay adult entertainment. He predicts the regulations could wipe out half of all porn sites on the Internet.

As a producer of adult content, Titan Media has long been required to keep records proving that its models and performers are 18 or older. But the new regulations require anyone who posts sexually explicit content — even if it came from somewhere else — to keep the records on hand and available for inspection. (Vintage porn, created before July 3, 1995, is exempt.)

“Blackdogue”, the webmaster of a nude celebrity male site, said he plans to shut down his free operation on Tuesday because of the regulations. “Since I get my images from online sources which do not provide proof of age of models, I am not able to maintain such records,” said the webmaster, who asked that his real name not be revealed.

Under the government’s definition, the rules encompass both hard-core and soft-core photos and videos as long as there’s sexual activity — even if it’s solo.

It doesn’t matter if a site is paid or free; the many sites that steal content from other sites aren’t immune either, and for them the threat of a prison term will probably be much greater than the often-remote possibility of a copyright infringement suit.

Apparently, even personal ads, banner ads and DVD covers will fall under the regulations if they’re sexually explicit.

The regulations don’t specifically target the LGBT community, but some observers suspect it won’t take much for the government to take a closer look at gay adult content.

“If you have a straight male committee checking out the content, they may see a Web site featuring twinks as being something to attack more than Web sites with 18-year-old girls just because of personal bias,” said Don Mike, vice president of sales at World Wide Content, which distributes online porn.

“If this is all driven by the religious right, they may feel they can add ‘stomping out homosexuality’ to their quest for purification of the Internet.”

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