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Can Buying a Plane Ticket Also Buy You Love? The New World of Travel Dating and Its Possible Personal and Legal Risks

Many consumers hope that they will win a free trip to Paris by entering a lottery or sweepstakes.  But now, especially good-looking men and women may have a new way to score that trip to Paris:  They can register online to have someone else foot the bill for Spring in Paris or Tahiti, as long as they are willing to have a wealthy companion by their side—potentially during both waking and sleeping hours.

MissTravel.com—a website that was launched just a few weeks ago, yet already has more than 20,000 members—offers itself as a place where pretty but penniless people can meet up with generous fellow travelers who will pay for their companionship.  The site says that it matches “generous travelers who hate to travel alone with attractive travelers who would love the opportunity to travel the world for free.”

Critics, however, liken the site to an online escort service—one that allows escorts or high-end call girls to earn frequent-flier miles. The site emphatically states, “Escorts are not welcome,” but online commentators—including one on the site Gawker—have called the site an e-pimp service for prostitutes who are willing to travel.

In this column, I will describe this new site and the legal issues it raises.  In particular, I’ll consider (1) whether the site could get in trouble for possible illegal activity by patrons, and (2) whether there is any recourse if the good-looking men and women who serve as escorts find themselves in hot water when things unravel overseas.  As the Internet becomes a medium for people to connect for everything from marriage, to illicit affairs, to paid sexual services, regulators and users alike have to navigate ever-changing and possibly risky territory as new business models develop.

What is Travel Dating?

Miss Travel bills itself as “the #1 Travel Dating website.”  As noted above, its stated purpose is to match generous travelers who don’t want to travel solo with self-styled “attractive” travelers who would love the opportunity to travel the world for free. At the moment, it appears to be the only travel dating website available online.

Miss Travel was founded by Brandon Wade, the entrepreneur behind the sugar-daddy dating sites SeekingArrangement.com and Seekingmillionaire.com, and the bid-for- a-first-date site WhatsYourPrice.com.  MissTravel.com bills itself as a site where an attractive young woman who has an urge to see the world, but who “lack[s] the funds to fulfill [her] travel dreams” can meet up with a “gentleman who has had some difficulty with the ladies, but [has] money to burn on airfare, high-end hotels, extravagant dinners, clothing, shoes, and entertainment.”

For now, the profiles of Miss Travel’s generous paying members (who are predominantly male) and their beautiful would-be travel companions (who are predominantly female, and who can register for free) are visible online.  Members state whether they are married or single, and stipulate the kind of relationship they want—which ranges from companionship to discreet affairs for those who are “married but looking.”

The site has posted notices that escorts are not welcome.  Moreover, Wade stated on “Good Morning America” that “There’s no money exchanged,” and said, “Sex isn’t even discussed, so why are we thinking that it could be like prostitution?

Yet while sex is not discussed by the site itself, travelers are asked if they want a sexy travel companion, and the profiles of site users indicate that they may have more prurient ideas on their mind.

Concerns About Safety Abroad When Things Get Rocky

Critics of the site worry that when someone is shelling out a fortune to take an attractive man or woman on a trip, they will expect something in return, aside from a peck on the cheek and a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower.

Thus, as some commentators have noted, worrisome questions may arise: What happens if the man who paid for you suddenly isn’t enjoying your company? Or, what if he asks you to perform certain sexual acts that you aren’t comfortable with?  For this reason, some have warned potential companions away from the site.  Granted, any blind date has its risks, but it’s a lot easier to cope with a date gone awry when you are on your home turf.  What if you are assaulted or harmed while overseas?  In some countries, the police or law enforcement may be no help at all.

In response to such concerns, founder Brandon Wade insists that he is not suggesting that his members go on travel dates with complete strangers without doing some homework first.  As a result, he has posted some travel and safety tips on the website—a series of bullet points with seemingly generic advice about precautions to take when going abroad.

The site also reminds people that “MissTravel.com is just an online venue where people meet. We do not screen our members nor are we involved in any actual communication between members. As a result, we have no control over the quality, safety, or legality of the information or profiles posted or the truth or accuracy of the information.  Per our Terms of Service Agreement, you agree you are solely responsible for your interactions with other MissTravel.com members. So please proceed with care.”

Despite this disclaimer, could Miss Travel still find itself subject to suit if things go wrong?  Possibly, but it may be difficult to prove that the site had any duty to its members to ensure their safety.  The risks to users, though, may be grave.  What if a teenager manages to elude any age verification, and uses the service?  Or, might someone find themselves kidnapped or spirited away and trafficked if they go abroad?  These are the potential consequences of leaving the country with a person who is at best a mere acquaintance

And if criminals or sexual predators start to use the site to trawl for possible victims, then what? One can imagine a true-to-life episode of “Law & Order SVU” as a possible outgrowth of this new innovation of “travel dating.”

No wonder Wade includes the following disclaimer in Miss Travel’s liner notes: “Remember, online dating is risky, and we always recommend that our members practice a common sense approach when meeting a stranger online.”

The site also has a page of safety tips, as noted above—and in those tips, it reminds users that it is their sole responsibility to take care of their safety while on a travel date.  But it’s one thing to take a cab back home from a dinner that’s gone sour in your home city, and quite another to think about trying to get out of a difficult dating situation while overseas.

Legal Issues: Is Miss Travel Effectively an Online Escort Service and If So, Will Any Consequences Ensue?

A key legal issue here is whether Miss Travel may be somehow profiting from or operating an online escort service.  Wade staunchly denies this.

But Neetzan Zimmerman at Gawker says “it’s really the #1 prosti-travel website,” and describes Wade as an “e-pimp.”  Zimmerman points out, as well, that Wade’s other websites—SeekingArrangement.com and SeekingMillionaire.com—are seemingly straightforward cash-for-relationship sugar-daddy  sites.

Despite the Miss Travel site’s disclaimers, it seems obvious that most of the men who  pay someone to go on an extravagant trip will probably expect to have sex on their vacation. If that indeed happens, does it qualify as prostitution?

The answer is that if the majority of the site’s travel companions view this as a commercial arrangement, one by which they earn their primary living, and do have sex with their fellow travelers, then perhaps what Miss Travel does will be defined under the law as prostitution.

The Laws and Recent Prosecutions Relating to Websites That Are, or Are Linked to, Escort Services

In recent years, state and federal authorities have pursued online advertising sites that have featured escort ads, including Craigslist.org, Escorts.com, and BackPage.com.  Craigslist and Backpage have also been sued for damages arising from their advertisements.  However, they have been found immune from suit under the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was passed as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  The Act states, at 47 U.S.C. § 230, that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Craigslist and BackPage were viewed, under the law, as passive service providers—with ads being created and posted by the site’s users.

For this reason, websites that advertise escort services may be immune from civil liability. There is still the possibility, however, that a website that knowingly induces prostitution might be criminally liable  Section 230(e) of the CDA establishes that § 230 “shall not be construed to impair the enforcement of” any federal or state criminal law.  Thus, § 230 does not foreclose criminal prosecution of websites that intentionally offer illegal escort services

Recently, two Philadelphia companies were ordered to pay a $1.5 million fine and forfeit $4.9 million after pleading guilty to money laundering.  The two companies—National A-1 Advertising and R.S. Duffy Inc.—also agreed to forfeit a domain name, Escorts.com, under the terms of a sentence imposed by a Pennsylvania-based federal court.

Escorts.com was prosecuted for facilitating “interstate prostitution.”  Prostitutes and their customers paid to use the site to set up their illegal assignations.  From January 2007 through October 2010, the two companies received around $5 million from Escorts.com subscribers. According to court documents, the website made specific reference to sex acts being performed in exchange for money.  Miss Travel definitely does not do that.

In August 2010, a group of state Attorneys General (“AGs”) took aim at online escort advertising—in part because of concerns that underage human-trafficking victims were being advertised on the Internet.  The AGs sent a demand letter to Craigslist asking the company to remove its adult personals category.  Craigslist eventually abandoned its “erotic services” category—although other adult categories relating to people seeking sexual relations are still permitted on the site.

The AGs also took on Backpage.com, calling on the site to terminate its online advertising of “adult services” under the threat of criminal charges.  In response, Backpage implemented new security procedures for adult personal ads  (e.g., better age verification).  In July 2011, the case against Backpage took on new life, as Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, labeled Backpage a “well-known accelerant of underage sex trafficking,” and ordered his city departments to terminate any advertising relationship with the Seattle Weekly, which carried Backpage’s ads and is owned, alongside Backpage, by Village Voice Media.

It’s unlikely that law enforcement will soon set its sights on Miss Travel, which is still in its infancy.  But if things start to go wrong, Miss Travel may well find itself subject to harsh scrutiny.  In recent years, AGs have gone after online web services that are viewed as hosting or facilitating prostitution, or in any way permitting the exploitation of minors.  Thus, if Miss Travel is not careful, it might end up the subject of an investigation as well.

Anita RamasastryAnita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Development. She is also a member of the Law, Technology and Arts Group at at the Law School. Ramasastry writes on law and technology, consumer and commercial law, and international law and globalization.
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