|Type of business||Web communications|
|Available in||English, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian, Chinese, Finnish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, and Turkish|
|Owner||Atlantische Bedrijven CV|
Former owner: Village Voice Media
|Current status||Seized as of April 6, 2018|
Backpage's adult services sections became the subject of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Postal Inspection Service, the United States Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigator Division, with analytical assistance from the Joint Regional Intelligence Center over accusations that that the website knowingly allowed and encouraged users to post ads related to prostitution and human trafficking, particularly involving minors, and took steps to intentionally obfuscate the activities.
Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering, acknowledging that "the great majority” of the adult advertisements on Backpage were actually advertisements for prostitution. As part of his plea agreement Ferrer agreed to shut down the site and give its data to law enforcement.
Backpage soon became the second largest online classified site in the United States. The site included the various categories found in newspaper classified sections including those that were unique to and part of the First Amendment-driven traditions of most alternative weeklies. These included personals (including adult-oriented personal ads), adult services, musicians and "New Age" services.
Until January 9, 2017, Backpage contained an adult section containing different subcategories of various sex work. The company suspended its adult listings following accusations by a United States Senate subcommittee of being directly involved with sex-trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors. However, many escorts and erotic masseuses admit to moving their ads to the "massage" and "women seeking men" listings. Prostitution is illegal throughout the United States, except for some counties in Nevada.
Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sacramento, criticized the shutdown, questioning how many sex workers across the United States no longer had a way to support themselves. Backpage allowed for sex workers using the site to post bad date lists, screen clients and communicate with other sex workers to ensure a safer experience. Activists argued that the move would force some of the site's users to work on the street instead.
This section may be too long to read and navigate comfortably. (April 2018)
As early as 2011 critics and law enforcement began accusing Backpage of being a hub for sex trafficking of both adults and minors.   despite claims by the website that it sought to block ads suspected of child sex trafficking or prostitution and reported some per month to the NCMEC, which in turn notified law enforcement.
Backpage supporters claimed that by providing prompt and detailed information about suspicious postings to law enforcement, including phone numbers, credit card numbers and IP addresses, the website helped protect minors from trafficking. They contended that shutting down Backpage would drive traffickers to other places on the internet that will be less forthcoming about crucial information for law enforcement.
Numerous writers, non-governmental organizations ("NGO's") legal experts and law enforcement officials including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Archive, and the Cato Institute, argued that that the freedoms and potentially the internet itself would be threatened if this type of free speech is prohibited on Backpage. They cite both First Amendment rights of free speech guaranteed in the Constitution as well as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds that service providers were not liable for contend produced by third parties.
In 2012, at the behest of a number of NGO's including Fair Girls and NCMEC, Fitzgibbon Media (a well-known progressive/liberal public relations agency) created a multimedia campaign to garner support for the anti-Backpage position. They enlisted support from musicians, politicians, journalists, media companies and retailers. The campaign created a greater public dialogue, both pro and con, regarding Backpage. In 2015, Fitzgibbon Media was closed due to multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by Fitzgibbon owner Trevor Fitzgibbon. Some companies including H&M, IKEA, and Barnes & Noble canceled ads for publications owned by Village Voice Media. Over 230,000 people including 600 religious leaders, 51 attorneys general, 19 U.S. senators, over 50 non-governmental associations, musician Alicia Keys, and members of R.E.M., The Roots, and Alabama Shakes petitioned the website to remove sexual content. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof authored a number of columns criticizing Backpage, to which Backpage publicly responded.
In 2012, Village Voice Media separated its newspaper company, which then consisted of eleven weekly alternative newspapers and their affiliated web properties, from Backpage, leaving Backpage in control of shareholders Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin. Executives for the spinoff holding company, called Voice Media Group (VMG) and based in Denver, raised "some money from private investors" in order to purchase the newspapers; the executives who formed the new company were lower-ranked than Lacey and Larkin. In December 2014, Village Voice Media sold Backpage to a Dutch holding company. Carl Ferrer, the founder of Backpage, remained as CEO of the company. Michael Hardy of the Texas Observer stated that since Lacey and Larkin remained at Backpage, "it would be more accurate to say that Backpage spun off Village Voice Media."
Beginning in 2011 a number of legal challenges were brought in attempts to eliminate the adult section of Backpage or shut down the website entirely. Backpage sucessfully argued that the First Amendment protections of free speech would be compromised by any restriction on postings by individuals on the Backpage website.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) served as an additional cornerstone in the defense. Section 230 says that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This portion of the CDA was drafted to protect ISPs and other interactive service providers on the Internet from liability for content originating from third parties. The enactment of this portion of the CDA overturned the decision in Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co. in which Prodigy was deemed by the court to be a publisher and therefore liable for content posted on its site. Many observers have credited the passage of section 230 of the CDA as the spark that ignited the explosive growth of the internet. The protection afforded to website owners under section 230 was upheld in numerous court cases subsequent to the passage of the legislation in 1996 including Doe v. MySpace Inc., 528 F.3d 413 (5th Cir. 2008) and Dart v. Craigslist, Inc., 665 F. Supp. 2d 961 (N.D. Ill. October 20, 2009).
- M.A. v. Village Voice Media, LLC - In September 2010, M.A. v. Village Voice Media was held in Missouri courts. The plaintiff alleged that Backpage "had knowledge...that postings on their website were advertisements for prosititution" and "illegal sexual contact with minors," that "crimes were being committed" and therefore "had a desire that these posters accomplish their nefarious illegal prostitution activities." The court dismissed the claims, holding that the plaintiff's allegations about the structure and operation of the website and that Backpage profited from user ads could not establish the requisite intent to assist others in committing a certain crime.
- Backpage.com v. McKenna, et al. — In March 2012, the state of Washington enacted a law (SB 6251) making "advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor" a felony offense. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington enjoined the law, on the grounds that SB 6251 violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and First and Fifth Amendments. The court rejected the State's argument that the statute only concerned "offers to engage in illegal conduct," and its presumption that "all online advertisements for escort services are actually offers for prostitution." The court held that escort ads are protected speech and a statute seeking to impose criminal liability on websites for hosting ads would impermissibly chill speech and could not withstand strict scrutiny.
- Backpage.com, LLC v. Cooper — In 2012, the state of Tennessee passed similar legislation mirroring most of the language in the Washington law. The law specifically targeted Backpage. Backpage filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Tennessee seeking a restraining order and temporary injunction to prevent enforcement of this law. In January 2013, United States District Judge John T. Nixon granted the motion. A permanent injunction and Final judgment was granted on March 27, 2013 holding that it was likely unconstitutional and "directly at odds" with Section 230. The court rejected the State's argument that its statute "does not implicate First Amendment scrutiny because it criminalizes only offers to engage in illegal transactions." Rather, the court held that under the First Amendment, the State must prove a defendant's scienter that specific speech is unlawful "to avoid the hazard of self-censorship," and therefore the State's presumption of illegality would impose "an impossible burden" on "websites such as Backpage.com . . . to review all of their millions of postings or, more likely, shut down their adult services section entirely." Invalidating the Tennessee law, the court held that state efforts to censor or chill an entire category of speech on a website fail because, "when freedom of speech hangs in the balance—the state may not use a butcher knife on a problem that requires a scalpel to fix."
- Backpage.com, LLC v. Hoffman et al. — In 2013, the state of New Jersey enacted legislation targeting human trafficking with similar provisions to the ones in the Washington bill that targeted third party advertising on the internet aiming to remove the immunity of website operators. Similar arguments to those proffered in Washington and Tennessee were made. The preliminary injunction and restraining order were granted on August 20, 2013. In May 2014. United States District Judge Claire C. Cecchi granted Backpage a permanent injunction as unconstitutional and a violation of Section 230.
- Doe No. 1 v. Backpage.com, LLC - In May 2015, a case in Massachusetts filed against Backpage.com alleged Backpage's policies and the design of the website were intended to promote "the illicit sex trade" and "the trafficking of children." The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that the challenged practices "[s]ingly or in the aggregate . . . amount to neither affirmative participation in an illegal venture nor active web content creation." The court held that Backpage could not be liable for the "existence of an escorts section" ("whatever its social merits, [the section] is not illegal"). The court held that "claims that a website facilitates illegal conduct through its posting rules necessarily treat the website as a publisher or speaker of content provided by third parties, and, thus, are precluded by section 230(c)(1)."
- Backpage.com, LLC v. Dart — In 2015, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart wrote to Visa and MasterCard pressuring the firms to "immediately cease and desist" allowing the use of their credit cards to purchase ads on Backpage and websites like it. Within two days, both companies withdrew the use of their services from Backpage. Backpage filed a lawsuit asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction alleging that Dart's actions were unconstitutional violating the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as Section 230 of the CDA. In August, U.S. District Judge John Tharp rejected the injunction, but on November 30, 2015 a three judge panel of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed this decision and granted the injunction. The court held that "a public official trying to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through 'actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction' is violating the First Amendment."
On April 9, 2018, the US Department of Justice's indictment against Backpage was unsealed. It contains details about 17 alleged victims who range from minors as young as 14 years old to adults, who were allegedly trafficked on the site while Backpage was knowingly facilitating prostitution. One 15-year-old is alleged to have been forced to do in-calls at hotels. A second teenager was allegedly told to "perform sexual acts at gunpoint and choked" until she had seizures, before being gang-raped. A third victim, advertised under the pseudonym "Nadia" was stabbed to death, while a fourth victim was murdered in 2015, and her corpse deliberately burned. The lawyer for Backpage operations manager Andrew Padilla stated that his client was "not legally responsible for any actions of third parties under U.S. law. He is no more responsible than the owner of a community billboard when someone places an ad on it,"
In October 2018 a Texas woman sued Backpage and Facebook, claiming she had been sex trafficked on Backpage by a man who lured her into prostitution by posing as her friend on the social media network.
On April 15, 2019 a Wisconsin man was convicted on federal sex trafficking charges over victims who he brought across state lines, forced into prostitution and advertised on Backpage
Arrest of CEO and corporate officersEdit
On October 6, 2016, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that Texas authorities had raided the Dallas headquarters of Backpage.com and arrested CEO Carl Ferrer at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on felony charges of pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. The California arrest warrant alleged that 99% of Backpage's revenue was directly attributable to prostitution-related ads, and many of the ads involved victims of sex trafficking, including children under the age of 18. The State of Texas was also considering a money laundering charge pending its investigation. Arrest warrants were also issued against former Backpage owners and founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin. Lacey and Larkin were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall dismissed the raid as an "election year stunt" which wasn't "a good-faith action by law enforcement", and said that the company would "take all steps necessary to end this frivolous prosecution and will pursue its full remedies under federal law against the state actors who chose to ignore the law, as it has done successfully in other cases." Backpage also accused California attorney general Kamala Harris of an illegal prosecution.
On October 17, attorneys for Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey, sent a letter to Harris asking that all charges against their clients be dropped. Harris refused.
On December 9, 2016, Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman dismissed all the charges in the complaint, stating that: "...Congress has precluded liability for online publishers for the action of publishing third party speech and thus provided for both a foreclosure from prosecution and an affirmative defense at trial. Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this Court, to revisit.”[check quotation syntax]
On December 23, 2016, the state of California filed new charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former Backpage owners Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin accusing them of pimping and money laundering. Lawyers for Backpage responded that the charges rehashed the earlier case that had been dismissed.
Since April 2015, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations ("PSI") has been investigating Backpage.com as part of a stated overall investigation of human trafficking. After a voluntary, day-long briefing and interview provided by the company's General Counsel, PSI followed up with a subpoena to Backpage.com demanding over 40 categories of documents, covering 120 subjects, regarding Backpage's business practices. Much of the subpoena targeted Backpage's editorial functions as an online intermediary. Over the ensuing months, Backpage raised and PSI rejected numerous objections to the subpoena, including that the subpoena was impermissibly burdensome both in the volume of documents PSI demanded and in its intrusion into constitutionally-protected editorial discretion. PSI subsequently issued a shorter document subpoena with only eight requests but broader in scope and also targeting Backpage.com's editorial functions. Backpage.com continued to object on First Amendment and other grounds.
PSI applied in March 2016 for a federal court order to enforce three of the eight categories of documents in the subpoena. In August 2016, the U.S. District Court in D.C. granted PSI's application and ordered Backpage to produce documents responsive to the three requests.
Backpage immediately filed an appeal and sought a stay, which the district court denied, then filed emergency stay petitions with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Supreme Court. Each appellate court issued temporary stays to consider whether to grant a stay pending appeal, but eventually denied the emergency stay requests, However, the D.C. Circuit agreed to expedite the appeal, and one of its judges who considered the emergency stay said he would have granted it. Backpage has continued to pursue its appeal despite producing thousands of documents to PSI pursuant to the District Court order. PSI scheduled a Subcommittee hearing regarding Backpage.com for January 10, 2017.
Shortly thereafter, Backpage announced that it would remove its adult sections from all of its sites in the United States. Backpage said it was taking this action due to many years of continuing acts by the government to unconstitutionally censor the site's content via harassment and extra-legal tactics and to make it too costly to continue its publishing activities.
In late-March 2018 and early-April 2018, courts in Massachusetts and Florida affirmed that Backpage's facilitation of sex trafficking fell outside of the immunity granted by Section 230 safe harbors. The latter ruling argued that because Backpage "materially contributed to the content of the advertisement" by censoring specific keywords, it became a publisher of content and thus no longer protected.
On April 9, 2018, the US Department of Justice's indictment against Backpage was unsealed. The 93 charges included "Crimes of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, facilitating prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, conspiracy to commit money laundering, concealment money laundering, international promotional money laundering, and transactional money laundering." According to prosecutors, the seven people charged in the indictment are: Michael Lacey of Paradise Valley, Arizona; James Larkin of Paradise Valley, Arizona; Scott Spear of Scottsdale, Arizona; John E. "Jed" Brunst of Phoenix, Arizona; Daniel Hyer of Dallas, Texas; Andrew Padilla of Plano, Texas; and Jaala Joye Vaught of Addison, Texas.
On April 6, 2018, Backpage was seized by the United States Department of Justice, and it was reported that Michael Lacey's home had been raided by authorities. Lacey was charged with money laundering and violations of the Travel Act.
A study conducted one year after Backpage was shut down found that the website had owned a virtual monopoly on Internet prostitution. The report Childsafe.AI, found that demand remains lower as sex trafficking has become more difficult and less profitable on the internet.
On April 12, 2018, Carl Ferrer, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Backpage pleaded guilty to both state and federal charges, including but not limited to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and money laundering. He also agreed to a plea deal in which he will testify against other alleged co-conspirators, such as but not limited to founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin.
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- Backpage.com seized by feds over sex trafficking ads. CBS Evening News. April 6, 2018.