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Voyeur site tests cyberlaw

Tampa officials say a Web site that displays the lives of five college women 24 hours a day is subject to adult business rules.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 1999


TAMPA -- Click the computer mouse on "Trixie's shower cam" and up pops a grainy, jerky video view of a naked young woman in a usually private moment of personal hygiene.

Another click takes you to her bedroom. Trixie, wrapped in a towel, reaches into a dresser, then walks out of view.

Other video shots on the Internet site Voyeur Dorm are snoozers: two views of a housemate working on a computer; pictures of the laundry room, the pool, the kitchen and various bedrooms -- all uninhabited.

Around 5,000 subscribers pay $34 a month to watch, Voyeur Dorm representatives say. For $16 more, they can chat online with the women.

Voyeur Dorm spokesmen say what is going on in the West Tampa house is just five college students leading normal lives in front of 31 cameras that run around the clock.

City officials call it an adult business, like any strip club or porn shop. As such, they have invoked the city's zoning code and said that Voyeur Dorm doesn't belong in a quiet residential neighborhood just off Armenia Avenue.

After years of fighting nude clubs and lingerie shops, Tampa is quietly taking on a new blue business: sex on the Web. City Attorney James Palermo acknowledges he is in uncharted legal territory.

"This is really a unique situation; we're dealing with cyberspace and the city code," he said. "The city code was written long before the Internet, so we've got to see where this kind of thing fits in."

An attorney for one of Voyeur Dorm's owners has appealed the zoning ruling to the city's Variance Review Board, and Palermo said the city will not move to shut down the house before the case reaches the board in June. If they lose, Voyeur Dorm's owners can appeal to the City Council, then circuit court.

In general, the zoning code allows home businesses that do not take up more than 25 percent of a house's square footage and do not create nuisances like lots of traffic or noise.

But this is the first Internet business to come under zoning scrutiny in the city, said Thom Snelling, manager of land development coordination.

"I wouldn't be surprised if before long we see others and we have to decide what to do about them," Snelling said.

Voyeur Dorm is not about sex, said Mark Dolan, an attorney for Entertainment Network Inc. of St. Petersburg, the local partner for the business.

"They don't expose any more than you or I do over the course of a 24-hour day," Dolan said.

The attraction, he said, is the same thing that draws viewers to MTV's The Real World and similar so-called reality programing.

The idea hit the Internet four years ago when teenager Jennifer Ringley set up a camera that beamed shots every 10 minutes from her Washington apartment to a site called "JenniCam." By last year, it was attracting 500,000 visitors a day. Copycat sites have popped up all over the Web.

Voyeur Dorm got started last fall from the house in Tampa. The house is owned by Dan Marshlack, a 67-year-old Treasure Island man, and his wife. Marshlack also is the sole director of Entertainment Network, according to Florida corporate records. He referred all questions to Dolan, the attorney.

The other partner in Voyeur Dorm is Internet Entertainment Group of Seattle, a major player in sex sites on the Web. IEG and its owner, 25-year-old Seth Warshavsky, have claimed a dominant position in the market by stirring controversy -- usually by selling images of celebrities in compromising situations.

The company obtained a home video of Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, drummer for Motley Crue, engaged in sex on their honeymoon. IEG put the video on its flagship Web site, Club Love, and sold 300,000 copies. Last year, Club Love displayed nude photos of radio psychologist Dr. Laura Schlessinger, taken years ago when she was in her 20s.

IEG operates more than 1,000 Internet sites, a spokesman said, and has annual profits of about $15-million.

Last October, IEG announced the launch of Voyeur Dorm, saying, "These six women are 100 percent real. The house is now occupied by five women.

Tampa television station WTVT-Ch. 13 broadcast a story in November featuring interviews with the women and Bruce Hammill, the house manager who said he came up with the idea. But after the city's zoning ruling in February, IEG and Entertainment Network shut down any interviews except by Dolan or Warshavsky's public relations representatives.

They say this much about Voyeur Dorm: The women receive free tuition, free rent and a "modest salary." They work in shifts that include scheduled parties and lingerie shows. No drugs are allowed. They can show as much or as little skin as they like.

"Some of the girls are very liberal, some of the girls are very conservative," said Heather Dalton, a spokeswoman for IEG. "Some may flash, others may not."

Voyeur Dorm's home page calls the site an adult version of The Truman Show, the movie in which Jim Carrey plays the unknowing subject of a television show on his day-to-day life.

The real legal test for Voyeur Dorm, contends attorney Dolan, is whether the house is really a business. No money changes hands there, he points out. Customers and suppliers do not drive up and park. From outside, the house looks like others on the block.

"There's no impact on the neighborhood whatsoever," Dolan said. "It's just people living there."

Indeed, only one neighbor complained to the city. She declined to talk with a reporter.

City zoning administrator Gloria Moreda wrote Dolan that Voyeur Dorm's Web page describes the kind of pay-for-nudity business that fits the city's definition of adult entertainment. It shows exposed buttocks, offers views of various rooms for a fee, and describes the women as "fresh, naturally erotic and as young as 18."

Dolan calls the dispute a simple difference of opinion on a murky area of law.

If the city prevails, Voyeur Dorm could move to a permitted location or maybe just take out the views provided by cameras in such areas as the bathroom.

"None of this was possible 10 years ago," Dolan said. "The code wasn't designed to address this."


-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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