Online Commercial Sex—the Digital Age of Victimless Crimes
Where do you put your police: on the streets or online? This modern question would haven’t surfaced twenty years ago. Now it is a major issue. As austerity measures worldwide have squeezed law enforcement budgets, policy makers are placed with a stark set of choices. How do you recruit and deploy your resources to detect, arrest and process through the court system to stop crime that has migrated online?
What becomes confusing is the huge number of ‘crimes’ that have enhanced capability of success once transferred online. Some of the suppression of the so-called computer ‘crimes’ in countries like Thailand is dubious in nature and nothing more than repressive measures to silence dissent. In a number of countries (including Thailand), governments have ordered officials (and recruited an army of private volunteers) to detect and report online critics of their regime. Once caught, they are sent off to prison. The idea is to chill certain kinds of speech, but in practice, when thousands no longer fear the police, such tactics are counterproductive and make the authorities look out of touch, out of date, weak, and ridiculous.
Law enforcement can’t be too far detached from the realm of what is possible. The problem is, the online world is redefining what is possible to suppress certain conduct whether it is political speech, dissent, gambling, prostitution or drugs.
The old methods of dispatching a police cruiser, foot patrol, networks of paid informants are gradually being replaced with cyber-patrols of chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
One category of the online activities that run afoul of local laws is worthy of examination—the victimless crime. The point is Voluntary prostitution has found a natural ally with the Internet.
For some years, so-called victimless criminals have migrated from the streets, back alleyways, nightclubs, bars, public parks and massage parlors to online venues. Gambling, designer drugs and prostitution are the best examples of the online commercialization that are overrunning the frontlines of law enforcement. The trend line indicates the old battle to contain victimless crime is unlikely to be won. When historians look back decades from now, 2008 will be a watershed year.
Why 2008? 2008 is the year Amazon began selling ebooks. In retrospect, 2008 was also the beginning of the end of traditional publishing (though few would have predicted it), and the start of an entirely new way to produce, market and sell books. If it worked for books, why wouldn’t it work for other products? Some of those products happened to be illegal in many but not all jurisdictions. It is that diversity of morality and law that allows the opportunity to exploit an untapped, previously dangerous, risky market.
The Economist in an article titled “More bang for your buck” takes a close look at the domestic and international implications of the growing online sex trade. Capitalism combined with the Internet, cyber banking, cheap airfares, has succeeded in creating a largely untapped market for sex. (This issue of the Economist was, according to my bookstore source, banned for distribution in Thailand based on political content not related to the sex industry story). The commodification of sex has found a good, efficient environment in which to expand in the online world. Simply put: the Internet has allowed for an expansion of the customer base. In many jurisdictions in the West, the customer of a sex worker is committing a criminal act by engaging the service of a prostitute. The pool of sex workers, at the same time, has rapidly increased. Sex workers are also violating the law in many jurisdictions.
Is there the political will to declare war on the sex trade? The chances are that won’t happen. It is too late. Too many people are engaged as providers and customers for effective law enforcement. Resources are better allocated to fight crime in other areas.
As The Economist observed, before the advert of the Internet, prostitutes left ‘tart cards’ in telephone kiosk along King’s Cross Road in London. It was an inefficient way to find customers, and an impossible way for those who didn’t venture down King’s Cross Road to find a prostitute. There are now specialized apps that connect buyers and sellers as well as review sites where buyers can read reviewer comments, which represent a full range of opinions of the kind one would find in abundance for books on Amazon.com or hotels and restaurants on Traveladvisor.com
This is the brave new world where the amateur and semi-professional can enter a market that traditionally was staffed by the hardcore professionals. The expectation to be paid for sex suddenly was no longer limited to a small, isolated group. Online prostitution expanded the scope of the market beyond that group of professionals and the customer base that bought the services.
Something similar happened in publishing. The New York and London publishing houses acted as gatekeepers, and unless they opened the door for you, your book was doomed to gather dust in the bottom of your filing cabinet drawer. Because you’d typed in on a typewriter and you kept a copy in your filing cabinet. You were a professional writer, only if you’d been published by a traditional publisher. Otherwise, you might write, but it was a hobby and you passed around your manuscript to your friends and family. Then the computer and the Internet came along. With the availability of ebooks and the sudden newly emerged market for cheap ways to format ebook, to find editors, and cover designers, it wasn’t long before a lot of people figured out that self-publishing might be the ticket for writers who for any number of reasons couldn’t break into the traditional publishing business. In a few years, self-published writers had shown there was a serious amount of money in the ebook business. A few self-published writers earned millions and became publishing superstars. The ebook self-published success stories became ‘evidence’ to prove the days of snobby, closed world of big publishers was finished. A whole new world of writers climbed onto the ebook bandwagon. The old filters are no longer functioning to exclude authors from publishing and finding an online audience for their books.
With a cheap new way to make the goods widely available on the market, the new controversy becomes over pricing of traditional paper books, as in traditional commercial sex—compared to their online versions. From an economics point of view the fact that one is legal and the other not, isn’t relevant. Instead the emphasis is on how old markets have or are in the process of being destroyed, and how the configuration of providers and users have mushroomed. The commercial sex market—its location, pricing, its players, and participants significantly altered and that has implications.
What the ebook market and online commercial sex market have shown is that in economic hard times, people who aren’t professionals will seek ways to earn extra income. The online world has ushered in the part-time worker, the amateur, and the semi-professional, and on your screen it is difficult to determine how far is their distance from the professional performance you expect.
Writing a book and self-publishing isn’t a crime. Although reading a poorly written book you may feel that you have been mugged. The point is, online commerce is disrupting the old methods of screening, filtering, and limiting the access between service provider and customer. Pimps and brothels are being disrupted in the commercial sex world. Likewise, publishing houses like Hatchette, who is in a very public dispute with Amazon over the pricing of ebooks, are finding their business model disrupted by online powerhouses. Once the middle-men (and women) get out of the way, then all that stops someone from selling sex online is acquiring some basic computer skills and marketing savvy, and it becomes very difficult to police such activities. A number of people will point out that prostitution has a core problem that cannot be trivialized—human trafficking makes the voluntary participation by the prostitute illusory. This is a problem worthy of a separate discussion.
The major problem facing sex workers and customers has been one of information. The Internet is exactly the place to allow large data banks of information to grow. Sex workers can create a ‘brand’ like any other commodity or celebrity. Details of service, price, age, ethnicity, photographs, and descriptions start to take on the appearance like any other commercial menu. The amount and scope of information and the range of broadcast dwarf the old ‘tart card’ King’s Cross Road paradigm. Women from the poorer Eastern European countries have gone to England, Germany and the Netherlands to seek out opportunities in the sex trade, driving down the local price. Another reason for price compression is the number of part-time sex workers. Sex workers now compete with housewives, students, or someone with a regular job and supplement their income with part-time sex work.
Bars, nightclubs, escort services, and entertainment complexes from Amsterdam to Bangkok are likely to find their comparative advantage eroded. It is also likely as The Economist concludes, that the number of customers for sexual services will increase as paid-for sex is more prevalent and hook-ups can be discreetly arranged.
If the future is an increase of commercial sex, how will law enforcement officials respond? Some websites may be shutdown and the web masters charged with a crime. That is whack a mole as the website reopens in some other country outside the reach of another country’s law enforcement agencies. As online commercial sex grows, attitudes about procreation, fidelity, marriage, children, and family may begin to change. Remember AltaVisa and Webcrawler in the pre-Google days? There were many such search engines. We remain at the AltaVisa stage with online sex services. Will there be the equivalent of a Google and Amazon.com moment? A time when the online commercial sex market is controlled by one large corporation? That would be interesting as a new group of lobbyists would have all kinds of incentives to secure favourable legislation from lawmakers.
Gambling, drugs and sex are usually identified as permissive, anti-social activities to be repressed. When the dealings were left to the street, the police had ways to containing the activities. Once the customers go online by the millions, worldwide, they send a message to law enforcement—the jails and prisons will never be sufficient. The service has been absorbed into the capitalist model, which loves a market where demand continues to grow and the prices continue to fall. Moore’s law may apply as well—the doubling of capacity every 18 months. The digital world is serving notice that the analogue world of law enforcement has passed it expiry date. TrickAdvisor may go into the dustbin like AltaVisa or become the next ‘hot’ IPO, soon thereafter to be bought in a bidding war between Google and Amazon. And so it goes, from the traditional notion that certain aspects of our humanity such as ‘sex’ are priceless and thus outside the realm of commerce, to the new reality that the old TV show—The Price is Right—was way ahead of its time.