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A screen shot of the website Backpage.com is seen Los Angeles Friday, April 6, 2018. Federal law enforcement authorities are in the process of seizing Backpage.com and its affiliated websites. A notice that appeared Friday afternoon at Backpage.com says the websites are being seized as part of an enforcement action by the FBI and other agencies. The notice doesn't characterize or provide any details on the nature of the enforcement action. It says more information on the action will be released later Friday. (Photo: AP/Damian Dovarganes)

Backpage, the classifieds website that stood accused of hosting prostitution ads, was “seized” by federal authorities on Friday.

Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division and other agencies said there would be further information provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, no further details have yet been released.

The shuttering of the website comes after years of legal maneuvering. Three corporate officers of Backpage were arrested on charges of “pimping” brought by California authorities in 2016. But just months later, those criminal charges were dismissed. In January 2017, the company announced it was removing all “adult content” from the site—and vowed to wage a First Amendment fight.

Now, it appears the federal and state authorities have shut down the site.

A pop-up box over the traditional listings for Backpage announces “backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized,” complete with the logos of the FBI, the DOJ, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and others. Also named on the site were the California and Texas attorneys general.

The box promises additional information would be provided by 6 p.m. on Friday. However, no further details were released—and federal authorities told multiple news outlets over the weekend that a judge had kept parts of the ongoing case against the company sealed.

An attorney for Backpage could not be reached for comment by Forensic Magazine on Monday.

Backpage has been the target of several law enforcement agencies and anti-sex-trafficking groups, who have accused the site of being a nexus of illegal activity—particularly underage prostitution. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said in a court filing several years ago that, of the 10,000 reports of child sex trafficking the agency receives every year, a “disturbingly high proportion” originate with Backpage.

A new piece of legislation that has yet to be signed by President Donald Trump has nonetheless been cheered by critics of online classifieds sites. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, popularly known as FOSTA, was passed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 27. That bill, known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, or SESTA, in the Senate, updates the Communications Decency Act. Even though it has not yet been signed into law, it has prompted Craigslist, another major site to host personals, to take its personals offline.

“Any tool or service can be misused,” the Craigslist leadership wrote. “We can’t take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”

The “seizure” of the Backpage site reportedly coincided with “law enforcement activity” at the Arizona home of Michael Lacey, one of the Backpage founders.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle cheered the move. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that the DOJ move “marks an important step forward in the fight against human trafficking.” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) tweeted that the Backpage seizure, coupled with the federal legislation, would transform the fight against prostitution.

“Today, Backpage was shutdown. It’s a huge step,” said Heitkamp. “Now no child will be sold for sex through this website—not in ND, the US, or around the world. Proud of the 2 yr long Senate investigation I was part of that helped lead to this point. And next week #SESTA will be signed into law.”

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