CLEVELAND, Ohio—Anthony Sowell, the convicted rapist who police suspect may be responsible for the deaths of six murdered women whose decomposed bodies were found in his Cleveland home, had a profile on Alt.com, a BDSM and fetish-oriented website owned and managed by FriendFinder Networks, CBS is reporting.
Because the state of the bodies has made it difficult for the authorities to determine exactly when the victims were killed—anywhere from weeks to years, officials have said—there has been no suggestion as yet that Sowell met any of them through Alt.com.
“Sowell appeared to have set up his Alt.com profile in July 2005, only one month after his release from a 15-year prison term for choking and raping a 21-year-old woman, who, police say, was lured to his bedroom in 1989,” reports CBS. “The [Alt.com] Web site says his last login was three months ago.”
Using the moniker Tony223936, Sowell described his ideal partner as submissive and willing to "please … anytime, anyplace and anyway" and himself as a "performer," someone who "loves to be around people."
Alt.com is directed at people whose sexual preferences run to the alternative—specifically, those from the BDSM, leather and fetish communities. ALT.com does not allow sexually explicit ads, however, and typical of alternative online communities, it attempts to stress safety and vigilance among its members without encroaching upon the privacy or anonymity of its members.
Though FriendFinder is not legally culpable for Sowell’s actions, even if it turns out he met some or all of the victims on the Alt.com website, this is the sort of case that often spurs legislators to introduce a law intended to regulate such risky activity, and sheriffs to bring charges (or lawsuits) that attempt to make the publisher criminally liable, as the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff recently and unsuccessfully tried to do with Craigslist.
According to industry attorney and free speech advocate Reed Lee, as tragic as the acts in Cleveland are, the laws in place that protect online services such as Alt.com are necessary for a functioning society.
“People who run internet services that merely allow people to hook up are immunized by section 230 of the Communication Act, which basically says that for computer websites like a bulletin board, where people write in or submit things, the speech that other people submit cannot be considered the speech of the host,” he told AVN. “Internet providers need that kind of protection in the same way that railroads and common carriers needed protection against the accusation that they unknowingly facilitated transport of somebody to commit a crime in another state; that someone from Texas could not have committed a crime in Arizona if they couldn’t get a train to get there. And we can go all over the place to find people who have used common carriers for bad purposes of their own.
“The danger here of course is that a legislature might try to burden a disfavored communication channel in ways that we wouldn’t dream of burdening if it was more favorable to us,” he added. “No one, for instance, would suggest that the telephone company ought to screen people for past criminal activity before they can put a call through to somebody. The problem is that everybody gets hysterical when it’s sexual activity, and especially a disfavored kind of sexual activity.”
When these sorts of crimes occur, Reed says, people tend to ask what could have been done to prevent them, but they often do not take the time to consider that the things that could have been done would interfere substantially with everybody’s rights.
“I think the thing to consider here are the burdens that any such regulation on the service provider would impose,” he said. “Look at it this way; suppose there was a situation where a registered sex offender who shouldn’t be within a thousand feet of a primary or secondary school gets a job as a delivery guy, and makes deliveries to a school, and uses that to get into the school and do serious harm to some students.
“There would be a great outrage and then someone would inevitably ask why the school didn’t know he was a registered sex offender,” he continued, “because there is a natural temptation to say that everyone should check. But if the school had to check everyone, how could it possibly do such a thing?”
Neither is this sort of situation new for the community in question, adds Lee. The BDSM community has long faced the question of people who don’t respect limits and go too far.
“The whole scene can attract people that are not in for the safe, sane and consensual but just the opposite,” he said. “But the community has gotten pretty savvy about that, and I think they recognize that ultimately it’s got to be private vigilance that does the work, because any kind of consideration of a public regulation would bring down more harm on that community than they could stand.”
Lee even argues that the seemingly reasonable argument that such dating sites should be expected or even required to scrub their members against a list of convicted sex felons is counterintuitive as well as an undesirable burden upon the majority.
“The problem with that is that it puts the burden on the service provider to screen tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of names, as against the probability that only a few [offenders] might turn up. And it really is imposing a burden, and those burdens can get really serious, especially if there are going to be consequences attached if someone slips through the cracks. I think we just have to realize that sometimes the call for a remedy is worse in terms of the impositions on everybody who is lawful.”
Lee readily admits that we live in a political atmosphere that embraces extreme measures of public vigilance, but cautions against taking any measures in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of such a horrific crime.
“I think we’ve been in an atmosphere that has been worrisome in that [political] regard for a long time,” he said, “and the light at the end of the tunnel I’m sure is there but it’s not readily apparent. What people really need to do is calm down. When we legislate in the midst of hysteria, we’re almost guaranteed to go too far.”
AVN called FriendFinder Networks and left a message with the Legal Department seeking comment on the case, but did not receive a call by post time.