The popular online classifieds site Backpage has removed all its adult content, despite successfully fighting criminal pimping charges against three of the company’s top executives.
Backpage said it was removing the adult content, bowing to “unconstitutional government censorship” which had forced their hand. They also vowed to fight First Amendment battles in the future.
“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed, but new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States,” the company said in a statement.
“This act of censorship will not reduce the problem of human trafficking, and those who suggest otherwise are deluding themselves and their constituencies,” they added. “Instead, it undermines efforts by Backpage.com to cooperate with law enforcement and provide information to identify, arrest and prosecute those who engage in human trafficking.”
Backpage has been the focus of several law enforcement agencies and sex-trafficking groups, who have pointed to the adult content section of the site as a nexus of illegal activity – particularly underage prostitution.
The attorneys general of California and Texas arrested and charged three of the company’s operators – CEO Carl Ferrer, and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin – in October. But a California judge dismissed all the charges last month, citing federal free speech protections.
Kamala Harris, then California AG, has since won election to the U.S. Senate. The Backpage leaders accused her of using the pimping arrests as a campaign season “stunt.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said they did not advocate completely shutting down the classifieds site – but they hailed the latest development in a statement today.
“Based on NCMEC’s experience with missing and exploited children cases, Backpage is the number one website where children are sold for sex online,” the agency said. “While NCMEC is not aware of the impetus for Backpage’s recent decision, we are gratified to know that as a result, a child is now less likely to be sold for sex on Backpage.com.”
Similar classifieds site Craigslist voluntarily shut down its adult advertising section in 2010. But Backpage fought to continue its adult category, based on a reading of the First Amendment.
As part of the recent charges against the three Backpage leaders, authorities claimed their three-year investigation into the site proved the company collects fees from users to post “escort” ads. The company’s internal revenue reports, apparently acquired by investigators, showed that 99 percent of the company’s worldwide income from 2013 to 2015 was from the “adult” section.
Three young girls from Washington state won the right to proceed with a lawsuit against Backpage in 2015. The three claimed they’d been victimized in the sex trade because of the online marketplace. The company contended in its defense that it had made adjustments to its rules and methods to prevent the exploitation of victims – but the state court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, 6-3. That lawsuit is still ongoing, McDougall said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was among several groups that field amicus briefs in support of the litigation. One of the most recent court filings by NCMEC contends that of the 10,000 reports of child sex trafficking the agency receives every year, a “disturbingly high proportion” originate with Backpage.
With the latest announcement of the abandonment of the adult section of the site, Backpage also produced testimony from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies vouching for the company’s cooperation in human-trafficking and sex cases.
Children of the Night, a Los Angeles-based group promoting awareness of child prostitution, also weighed in on Backpage’s favor.
“The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique,” said Lois Lee, the group’s founder and president. “It not only made law enforcement's job easier, it made them much more effective at rescuing kids and convicting pimps.”
Though many of the victims are nameless and many of the alleged crimes go unreported, one of the more high-profile criminal cases involving Backpage appeared last year. Neal Falls, a 45-year-old suspected serial killer, met an escort through a classified ad on the site – but was killed when the escort used his own gun against him during the commission of the crime.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has a hearing concerning Backpage scheduled this morning on Capitol Hill.