CYBERSPACE—Apparently aware that the Republican-led U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was about to release a report condemning Backpage.com, its CEO Carl Ferrer and site co-founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey, and in light of new criminal complaints made against the company and its personnel by the California Attorney General's office, Backpage has shut down its online adult advertisements section.
"We believed we would secure Backpage’s free speech rights in the courts, and we did," said Larkin and Lacey in a statement released Monday. "What we did not foresee is that a vindication of Internet speech and privacy rights in the federal courts would lead to what Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals called illegal 'official bullying' by government actors aimed at the 'suffocation' of Backpage. This effort is spearheaded by headline-hunting politicians who understand that government-regulated banks and credit card companies won’t lift a finger to protect the First Amendment rights of websites and Internet users from government intrusion. Judge Posner said that the 'analogy is to killing a person by cutting off his oxygen supply rather than by shooting him.' ... Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it."
The subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) as the ranking minority member, came to three basic conclusions after a series of hearings stretching back more than 18 months.
"Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its 'adult' ads," the report's Executive Summary states. "As early as 2006, Backpage executives began instructing staff responsible for screening ads (known as 'moderators') to edit the text of adult ads to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction. By October 2010, Backpage executives formalized a process of both manual and automated deletion of incriminating words and phrases, primarily through a feature called the 'Strip Term From Ad Filter.' At the direction of CEO Carl Ferrer, the company programmed this electronic filter to 'strip'—that is, delete—hundreds of words indicative of sex trafficking (including child sex trafficking) or prostitution from ads before their publication. The terms that Backpage has automatically deleted from ads before publication include 'lolita,' 'teenage,' 'rape,' 'young,' 'amber alert,' 'little girl,' 'teen,' 'fresh,' 'innocent,' and 'school girl.' When a user submitted an adult ad containing one of these 'stripped' words, Backpage’s Strip Term From Ad filter would immediately delete the discrete word and the remainder of the ad would be published. While the Strip Term From Ad filter changed nothing about the true nature of the advertised transaction or the real age of the person being sold for sex, thanks to the filter, Backpage’s adult ads looked 'cleaner than ever.'"
The other conclusions basically state that Backpage "knows that it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking," and that despite their denials, Larkin and Lacey still exercise control over Backpage's content, even though they supposedly sold their interests to Ferrer in 2014.
"We reported the evidence that Backpage has been far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew," Portman said in a statement. "Backpage's response wasn't to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site. That's not 'censorship'—it's validation of our findings."
Or possibly a recognition that the subcommittee would keep coming after them no matter what they did or said.
"Like the decision by Craigslist to remove its adult category in 2010, this announcement is the culmination of years of effort by government at various levels to exert pressure on Backpage.com and to make it too costly to continue," Backpage said in a statement. "But the shut-down of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future."
Along with the report, the subcommittee also released an 840-page appendix consisting largely of memos and other internal communications at Backpage, many of which indicate that the staff did indeed exercise more control over ads' contents than company officials had previously admitted.
What didn't make it into the subcommittee's report, however, was the fact that several agencies involved with aiding trafficked youth, including the FBI, have lauded Backpage for its help. For example, Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night, an agency devoted to rescuing children from prostitution, called Backpage a "critical investigative tool" that has helped authorities arrest pimps and recover missing children, while a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department reportedly stated, "I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target. I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking."
That isn't an idea easily squared with the 40-count criminal complaint filed on December 23 by then-CA Attorney General Kamala Harris, which includes 26 counts of money laundering and conspiracy to commit same, based in the concept that Backpage and its employees received money for ads which they knew or should have known were for prostitution services, and 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy, on the theory that since the alleged prostitutes allegedly used money they obtained from providing sexual services to pay for the ads, Backpage employees were therefore the women's "pimps."
Those charges may be difficult to prove in court, and a lot will depend on whether the state can prove that Backpage exercised control over the ads it published, since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally exempts website owners from liability for material posted on their site by its users—a proof which might just have become easier in light of the Senate subcommittee's publication of Backpage's internal memos. A federal judge had thrown out Harris's earlier complaint against the company on the basis of the Section 230 protections.
"By creating an online brothel—a hotbed of illicit and exploitative activity—Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin preyed on vulnerable victims, including children, and profited from their exploitation,” Harris said.
Backpage's closing of its adult services section even prompted a response from legal brothel owner Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, which described Backpage as an "enabler of the illegal sex trade."
"The shuttering of Backpage.com will mark the beginning of the crumbling of America's modern illegal prostitution infrastructure, and reinforce the necessity that prostitution be legalized throughout the United States, beyond the rural areas of Nevada where regulated prostitution has proved to be a successful, safe, and sustainable socio-economic construct for consenting adults desiring to engage in pay-for-play sex," said Hof, as part of a blog post titled "Good Riddance Backpage.com! You Were the Fuel That Helped to Make the Sex Trafficking Machine Run" that he penned on the matter for BunnyRanch.com. "The revelation that the people who run Backpage.com are morally bankrupt individuals who, through their business practices and procedures, worked to support sex traffickers for years, speaks volumes about the dangers of not having regulated prostitution throughout the United States. It’s time to take a good, hard look at the cesspool that is the illegal prostitution industry, and start to change things for the better."
It appears that the Senate subcommittee itself does not intend to bring any specific charges against Backpage.com, Ferrer, Larkin or Lacey, since they appear to have broken no federal laws, but even with Kamala Harris now a U.S. Senator, her office will be pressing this latest complaint, though it's unclear whether there is enough evidence alleged to survive a summary judgment motion by the defendants.
Pictured: Carl Ferrer