Consumers to be Charged in Obscenity Case?

In 1969, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on the case of Stanley v Georgia, unanimously concluding that a person has the right to watch pornography in the privacy of his or her own home. In the decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote:

Whatever may be the justifications for other statutes regulating obscenity, we do not think they reach into the privacy of one’s own home. If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch. Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men’s minds.

With this in mind, the news that federal prosecutors in Washington D.C. are attempting to force a company to turn over records that divulge the names and addresses of people who purchased “obscene” materials is puzzling at best and frightening at worst.

A company named only as Company X has been served with three Grand Jury subpoenas requesting business records and 2257 documentation – not uncommon or unreasonable in a prosecution of this type. But the fourth subpoena demands “a copy of records that show the identity of all movies sold or distributed, including the date of each transaction, payment received, and method and date of each of each shipment, from customer purchases” from the company’s website that occurred during 15-day windows in December 2007 and April 2008.

The company offered invoices with customer names and addresses blacked out, but the Dept of Justice demanded the originals that included personal information for everyone who purchased adult videos from this company in those time periods. While the judge presiding over the Grand Jury had the good sense to reject the prosecutors’ insistence that the documents show personal customer information, the motives of the Justice Department are open to speculation.

Could the DoJ be planning to go after consumers of adult materials in the future? It’s hard to say, but important to note that while possessing obscene materials is not a crime, receiving them is. I’m not sure how a person comes to possess anything without first receiving it, but the bottom line is that the feds may be considering stepping over a boundary that would put porn consumers in jeopardy.

Even though VideoBox has content standards and a business model that make it an extremely unlikely target for government witch hunts, I felt it was important that we all, as consumers of adult entertainment, know what’s happening elsewhere in the world of porn. The Grand Jury hasn’t made any indictments yet, so let’s hope that rationality prevails and Company X (whoever they are) doesn’t end up like Rob Zicari, Janet Romano or Max Hardcore.

via: AVN

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27 Responses to “Consumers to be Charged in Obscenity Case?”

  1. Strangepork Says:

    When is this nation going to realize that obscenity laws are obscene? How can we have laws that are based on matters of opinion and taste? Truthfully, obscenity is defined as anything that the person watching decides that they aren’t in to. Producers and consumers should have equal protection here; if no crime was committed in the making of the material (all participants of legal age and consenting, basically) then there should be no crime in buying, selling, or viewing that same material.

  2. alison Says:

    Strangepork – I couldn’t agree with you more. My worry is that the prosecutors were trying to get that customer data so that once they convict Company X of creating “obscene materials,” they can charge their customers with receiving them.

  3. Strangepork Says:

    That would set a dangerous precedent if it is the case, but details are incomplete here. If obscenity laws are based on “community standards” they may be trying to prove the material was shipped to particularly prudish community. But then you’d think the names and full addresses wouldn’t be necessary, just city/state/zip should be enough. Additionally, the fact that they are only looking at specific dates might suggest that they are trying to track down select orders. All kinds of troubling thoughts come to mind here. All because someone is offended by someone else’s enjoyment of something that they can choose not to watch?

  4. Bronty Says:

    I’m not a lawyer, but my two penneth:

    Scenario A) Someone in the film was underage. They want to know who is possessing child porn.

    Verdict: Unlikely. They wouldn’t only need sales records from two fifteen-day period; they’d want all the sales records.

    Scenario B) The company was knowingly or unknowingly involved in non-porn related fraud. The government suspects that the alleged fraud took place on two separate dates, hence their need for transaction records.

    Verdict: More likely.

    Scenaro C) The government wants to do more in prosecuting what it perceives as obscenity. It will go after consumers, much in the same way as the recording industry went after consumers.

    Verdict: I don’t think so. From what I’ve read, the whole meaurement of obscenity has changed in recent years, making prosecution specifically for obscenity less likely. A jury in a puritanical town might hate dildos. But, there was a case recently where the defendant’s lawyer pulled a list of Google searches that people in the local area had conducted over some past timeframe. Supposedly, they had more love of dildios than they were letting on, and that’s saying the least.

    Scenario D) The government is pursuing rubbish charges against the company for reasons we may never know.

    Verdict: Possible

    Question for Alison: What are the Videobox content standards, specifically? And why do they make Videobox an unlikely target for persecution?

  5. tom brokaw Says:

    It’s pretty unlikely that the government is looking into prosecuting half of the country. I’m not worried.

  6. DH8028 Says:


    plus, think the government should be more focused on it’s members bangin’ their own secretary aides than us watching “fake” secretaries get banged. Yeah I’m lookin at you Edwards!

  7. alison Says:

    Prosecutors know that the “community standards” of certain parts of the country are more likely to be violated by porn than others. You will never see an obscenity trial take place in California. Rob Zicari (Rob Black) and Janet Romano (Lizzy Borden) of Extreme Associates were tried and convicted in Western Pennsylvania. Paul Little (Max Hardcore) was tried and convicted in Tampa, Florida. I think the fact that John Stagliano was indicted in D.C. may help him avoid jail. We’ll see.

    The charges against Company X are related to mailing obscene materials. You can get more info here:

    As for VideoBox’s content standards, I spoke to the Content Dude who said that he avoids materials containing material that’s drawn such charges in the past. But the content, in my opinion, is less important than the structure of the business. VB doesn’t produce movies or mail DVDs.

    The real goal behind obscenity prosecutions is to shut down producers. Even if the producers win the case, the amount money they’ve had to put out to keep themselves out of jail is often enough to bankrupt them. VB doesn’t make movies, so prosecuting VB has no effect on porn production. In my personal opinion, it wouldn’t be worth it from the government’s perspective.

    I think the point of charging private individuals with obscenity wouldn’t be to put half the country in jail. It’d be to scare people away from buying porn. Which accomplishes the overall goal of keeping porn from being made because the demand would (in theory) decrease.

    All of this said, I’m not a lawyer and I can’t really claim to know what the people who waste my tax money on obscenity prosecutions *really* think. Anything I’ve said represents my own opinion (and not necessarily the opinion of VideoBox as a company).

  8. RanRalph Says:

    thanks for the info Alison! it’s good to be aware of this kind of stuff. helps us be vigilant to prevent our rights to be taken away.

    hopefully someone at the DoJ just got overzealous and this isn’t a trend of things to come. though with the most recent supreme court decisions I am wondering about the future 🙁

  9. BigD78 Says:

    Man! Here we go again! There’s always someone out there interested in regulating how you think, feel, speak and act. Usually in the name of protecting “Children” or “Family Values”. When are these religiously motivated Conservatives and political correctness motivated Liberals going to realize that this country was founded on principles such as Freedom of Speech and Freedom from Oppression? They should all take a good look back at our Founding Fathers (and the religious zealots should REALLY ask themselves what Jesus would do). If only the human race could move beyond that overwhelming urge large amounts of them seem to be subject to, that urge to control and manipulate other people. Just leave us well enough alone already! Who cares what we do in the privacy of our homes as long as no innocents (non-consenting third parties) are harmed? Anyhow, enough ranting. I for one am not too worried about it, these groups always seem to blow smoke every so often, nothing heinous has come of it yet, but I guess we’ll see. Let’s hope for the best.

  10. deadip Says:

    Time for Big Government to get the Fuck out of Law-Abiding citizen’s lives. What happens behind closed doors is none of the Government’s Business, unless, of course, the subjects in the Materials are NOT of Legal Age. I don’t see any reason to have any Obscenity Laws at all, except in the case of Child Porn.

  11. Strangepork Says:

    When they go after producers, the only people who take much notice are those in the industry, first amendment activists, and a few dedicated fans. But if they really start going after consumers (unless it’s for CP) there is going to be a major public backlash. It isn’t going to decrease demand for porn any more than the War on (some) Drugs has decreased the demand for drugs. The ACLU will have a field day, and people will want to know where the line is drawn. With a law based on community standards, and the “community standards” for every zip code not clearly defined as far as which sex acts are acceptable, how is anyone supposed to know if they are a criminal or not? There are no strip clubs or porn shops in my zip code, but if I drive 10 miles I can get a full contact lap dance from a completely nude woman. If they take a survey, and determine that I’m the only person in my building who likes anal porn, am I going to have to pack up and move? I just can’t see the world going that crazy.

    And, sorry to go off-topic, but PLEASE fix Quick Preview soon.

  12. ropeadope Says:

    @ strangepork – Can you imagine the fine print contained within residential occupancy agreements of the future? No pets, no smoking, no children, no waterbeds, no subleasing, no anal.

    @ Alison – I don’t know exactly what to make of all this, but it’s potentially troubling. The United States already boasts having the highest percentage of its population imprisoned relative to all other nations of the world. New prisons continue to be constructed at breakneck speed. Those cells have to be filled one way or the other. So what if a few Constitutional rights are trampled upon in the process? The ends justify the means.

  13. Kenny Says:

    I have a question now, Alison and Ropeadope, in many cases consumers tend to use fake names and addresses to ‘buy’ porn materials. So how can the feds track down the original buyer/consumer if the information that the consumers give to the ‘porn companies’ are not accurate. Also taking into account that people tend to have multiple email addresses.

  14. ropeadope Says:

    @ Kenny – Alison is more knowledgeable than myself, but I believe each computer has a unique ip number which is probably logged during any transactions. The ip number could trace back to the owner. Additionally, if you are making an actual purchase, how are you paying for it? Credit Card? That would lead to the consumer.

  15. Strangepork Says:

    Pretty close, rope – The IP address is assigned by your service provider to your network hardware. Unless you are paying extra for a static IP address, this number could change periodically. It is pretty common for sites to log the IP addresses of visitors, especially if monetary transactions are involved. Your IP address can reveal your ISP and general location, but someone would have to request it from your provider to get more info than that. Most providers won’t share customer names and addresses without a court order. Also, there are tricks for masking your IP address. But, as you said, they still have your credit card, your billing address, and (if you ordered a physical product) your shipping address.

  16. Kenny Says:

    If you buy a Gift Card or something, then u can write whatever in the address/names.

    Overall, though what is the chance for the feds to prosecute individual consumer?

  17. deadip Says:

    @ Strangepork – Your Computer is assigned an IP Address as well. Some ISPs assign you an IP Address (where you have to manually put in the numbers)or your Computer Obtains an IP Address automatically, depending on what kind of Network the ISP has, no extra costs involved. At least, I have NEVER had to pay extra for an Assigned (Static) IP Address. Yes, the Info still must be Requested via a Court Order, that much I do agree with you on. I’ve been on the Internet since day one when it was made Public to the World. I also went to College for Computers, Communications, and Industrial Electronic Engineering Technologies. The Government, Universities, and Medical Facilities have been on the Internet, since after WWII or at least, since the Korean War.

    If the Government really wants to find you, they will. They have the Technology to find you. Trust me.

    @ Kenny – I disagree with you entirely. Gift cards are totally different than Credit Cards. There is always a Bank involved with any Credit Card you have. Everytime a person signs up for a Porn Site via Credit Card a person still has to enter Name, Address, E-Mail Address, and Credit Card Number. How else would the Porn Site be paid, if someone entered false Information as you say??? Claiming Fraud on Transactions made to one’s CC# for every Site that person joined could lead to that Person spending time behind bars for theft for starters.

  18. Strangepork Says:

    @deadip: I was simplifying a bit to avoid typing forever and getting overly technical, but I still rambled on a bit more than I intended. That is about to happen again. When I said “network hardware” I was speaking in general terms. If you are connected directly to the Internet, that hardware is the network interface in your computer, which you could certainly simplify to just say Your Computer. I have one IP address that is assigned to my networking equipment by my ISP. I have half a dozen devices using the network connection from my router, and they are assigned internal IP addresses by that router. The Internet doesn’t know or care about those internal addresses: If I download a scene from Videobox on my primary machine, or check my email on my netbook, or stream a Netflix movie on my Xbox 360, all of those services are going to log the same IP address. That IP address mostly stays the same, since my connection is always on, but my ISP might assign me a new one any time I disconnect and reconnect, or if they just feel like it. (Or if they are trying to discourage me from running a public server.) I have never paid for a static IP either, but I’ve never had the need for one. I’ve only had one provider just give me a static IP, but your experience may vary. But yes, if the Government wants to, they are going to get me, and they will tell the world that I really like women with big natural boobies. And I will be ruined and disgraced, or something.

  19. qihob Says:

    @deadip: Actually, Visa now sells Gift Cards that function exactly like credit cards from the merchant’s point of view. And you just give them an address to use as a billing address when you buy it — I don’t think there’s any verification. So, if someone really wanted to remain anonymous, they could do it.

  20. Kenny Says:

    @qihob: Yes, I think you can, because my friend does that. If it is a VISA Gift Card, then the only thing that will be verified will be the Gift card itself. NOT the owner’s regular credit card. ALSO, you can’t buy VISA gift cards with another credit card. Has to be a debit card.

  21. deadip Says:

    @ Kenny and qihob
    A Debit Card is much more easier to trace, because a Debit Card takes the Money right out of a Bank Account either (Checking or Savings). Also even some (NOT all) Debit Cards have a Credit Card Company’s Logo on it (Visa, Mastercard, etc.) and the 16 Digit Number like a Credit Card does along with the 3 Digit Number on the back called the CCV (Credit Card Verification Number).

    I did NOT say a person could NOT remain anonymous buying a Gift Card….but even a Gift Card will be traced to the Person that bought it and if that Person is going to be facing some serious Prison Time, what do you think that Person is going to do??? In most cases, I’d say that Person is going to give up the Identity of the person said Gift Card was purchased for.

  22. deadip Says:

    My hope is that Company X doesn’t give up the fight and keeps the Customer’s Info safe. I’m totally against these Obscenity Laws, except for the cases involving CP.

  23. stlguy76 Says:

    I’ve read all of this with much interest, and have learned a lot. Thanks to Allison for bringing it to our attention, and to all those who have weighed in. My disclaimer, too: I am not a lawyer, but as I understand the law in these cases, courts would be very hesitant to order such a list turned over to prosecutors. If the government had specific knowledge about an individual or several individuals engaged in something illegal (child porn, or anything deemed “obscene”–a much too general and almost meaningless category anyway), it would have to apply for a warrant directed specifically at that individual or individuals. Otherwise, this would open the door to widespread abuses of most of the Bill of Rights. Even as far to the scary religious right the courts might be turning (especially the Supreme Court), I can’t imagine there is sufficient judicial insanity yet to allow such a thing to happen. But I’m an optimist by nature, so I might be fooling myself.

  24. Ken Says:

    This is most troubling and must be opposed in the strongest possible way. Justice Thurogood Marshall’s explannation of how he reached his decision on the right of people to enjoy pornography in the privacy of their own home has to be viewed as being the right decision.

  25. mhbox41 Says:

    Remember the UPS slogan ‘What can brown do for you?’? Well, one answer is keep your ass out of jail! The US Postal Service is where they got Max Hardcore. Not the porn, the mailing of it. Just some postal inspector who was never loved or something. So stop using USPS if you love pron!
    (At least, never use it for getting porn delivered to you, unless you WANT to go to prison.)

  26. qihob Says:

    @deadip: you can buy the gift cards with cash.

  27. jeff Says:

    i wonder if it really takes a court order to trace your IP these days…there was a story a couple months ago that Sprint just had gone over 8 million requests on their special website for law enforcement to get people’s GPS tracking data from their cell phones…that’s just one cell provider and in less than 2 years’ time iirc…