On Friday, the controversial online classified ad site Backpage.com was shut down and “seized” in what the federal government called a “law enforcement action” by the FBI and several other agencies. On Monday, according to media reports, seven people affiliated with the site, including co-founder Michael Lacey (pictured above), faced a wide range of multiple criminal charges—though the charges remained under seal.
Reports by CBS News had been taken offline, after initially reporting that the feds slammed the individuals with a 93-count criminal indictment, with charges that included money laundering and facilitating prostitution, which is more commonly known as pimping. A report of the indictment by a local ABC News affiliate remained accessible, however.
Court documents filed by the government are reported to list 17 victims, both adults and minors, who say that they were forced into sex work and trafficked via Backpage advertisements, according to the Arizona local news site AZFamily.com. A report by the Arizona Republic newspaper said that Lacey was among those charged, though the charges against him have not been made public. The paper reported that the 69-year-old former editor of the Phoenix New Times weekly newspaper—who went on to found a nationwide chain of similar “alternative” weekly newspapers—was charged as part of a months-long federal investigation into human trafficking.
Lacey and business partner James Larkin founded Backpage in 2004, the year before they purchased the Village Voice Media chain, giving them control of New York’s then 50-year-old Village Voice, the model for similar weekly newspapers in cities around the country. They also controlled Los Angeles’s LA Weekly and numerous other weekly papers as part of the Village Voice deal.
But in 2012 they chose Backpage over the newspaper business, selling off their interests in Village Voice Media to concentrate on the lucrative classified ad site. According to one estimate, the worth of the site was valued at $82 million.
The Backpage shutdown comes just two weeks after the Senate passed the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or FOSTA, a bill that weakens protections for internet sites whose users engage in illegal activity on the sites. But the seizure of Backpage appears to have been in the works for months. In January of 2017, the Senate Subcommitee on Investigations issued a report accusing Backpage.com of “knowingly” facilitating sex trafficking.
The FOSTA bill was sent to the Oval Office for Donald Trump to sign on April 3. But as of April 9, he still had not signed the bill into law. Under federal law, he has until April 14 to sign the bill.
Photo: Backpage.com screen capture / Sacramento County Sheriff's Office