Backpage is a classified advertising website launched in 2004. Up until its seizure by U.S. authorities in April 2018, it offered classified listings for a wide variety of products and services including automotive, jobs listings, and real estate. In 2011, Backpage was the second largest classified ad listing service on the Internet in the United States after Craigslist.
As of 6 April 2018 backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. 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.
The site's offering of adult services sections has been highly controversial, due to allegations that Backpage 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. After a series of court cases and the arrest of the company's CEO and other officials, Backpage removed the adult services subsection in the United States in 2017.
Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to "charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering".
|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
Near the turn of the 21st century, Internet-based classified advertising, particularly the website Craigslist, was having a significant impact on the classified advertising business in newspapers nationwide. Classified advertising in daily newspapers as well as weekly alternatives, suburban papers and community papers was moving to the free advertising model of Craigslist and other smaller websites.
In 2004, in response to this phenomenon, New Times Media (later to be known as Village Voice Media), a publisher of 11 alternative newsweeklies, launched a free classified website called backpage.com. The foundation and traditions of free classified advertising and free circulation were part of the fundamentals of the alternative newsweeklies dating back to 1971. The Chicago Reader and the Phoenix New Times were pioneers in these operating philosophies.
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 professions (escorts, erotic masseuses, strippers, phone sex operators, etc.). After accusations from the United States Senate of being directly involved with sex-trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors, the company suspended its adult listings, describing the move as "the direct result of unconstitutional government censorship". 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. Activists argued that the move would force some of the site's users to work on the street instead.
There has been significant public controversy and discourse regarding the adult section of Backpage.com. Most of the criticism has centered on the charge that Backpage is used to market minors (i.e. underage sex trafficking), and that they contribute to a surge of prostitution in areas that they operate. Media, law enforcement, politicians and parents of trafficked children have weighed in on this matter.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the majority of child sex trafficking cases referred to NCMEC involve ads on Backpage. Backpage says that it blocks about a million ads per month, mostly suspected of child sex trafficking or prostitution. Of those, they report around 400 ads a month to NCMEC which in turn notify law enforcement. Content submitted to Backpage is surveyed by an automated scan for terms related to prostitution. At least one member of a team of over 100 people also oversees each entry before it is posted.
Backpage has had continued issues with credit card processors, who were under pressure from law enforcement to cease working with companies that allegedly allow or encourage illegal prostitution. In 2015 Backpage lost all credit card processing agreements, leaving Bitcoin as the remaining option for paid ads.
In an amicus curiae brief, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says the efforts of Backpage are inadequate and their reporting lacked in several areas. They say Backpage does not report all ads that have been flagged as being underage, does not report when someone tries to advertise children under 18 years of age, and does not respond to requests of parents to have ads of their trafficked children removed. They also say Backpage "encourage[s] dissemination of child sex trafficking content on its website". They say Backpage is much slower in removing ads that advertise children than ads placed by authorities aimed at trapping traffickers, guides traffickers in creating false pages for underage children, instructs traffickers and buyers on how to pay anonymously, and makes it easier to make adult posts than other posts. They said "To all intents and purposes, Backpage has instituted no effective procedures to prevent child sex trafficking ads from being created on its site." They say that they do not use obvious techniques to identify traffickers, such as using the same phone number, email address or credit card of a known trafficker, or reusing the same picture of known victim of human trafficking.
Advocates for Backpage point out that by carefully scrutinizing each posting in the Adult section before it is posted, removing questionable posts and reporting potential cases of the trafficking of minors to the authorities and NGOs such as NCMEC, Backpage is aiding in the fight against this activity. In addition, they argue that by providing prompt and detailed information about postings to law enforcement when asked to do so (including phone numbers, credit card numbers and IP addresses), Backpage aids law enforcement in protecting minors from such activity. They also contend that the prompt and complete production of this information results in more convictions for illegal activities and that shutting down the adult section of Backpage will simply drive the traffickers to other places on the internet that will be less forthcoming about crucial information for law enforcement.
Liz McDougall, an attorney serving as general counsel for Backpage.com, said that Backpage is an "ally in the fight against human trafficking." She said that the adult section of Backpage is closely monitored, and that shutting it down "would simply drive the trafficking underground." She said that websites like Backpage, that are able to monitor trafficking activity and report it to law enforcement, are key in the fight against human trafficking. McDougall said that shutting down the service on a cooperative United States–based website would only drive trafficking to underground and international websites that are more difficult to monitor, and are often outside the jurisdiction of U.S. 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, have pointed out that the freedoms and potentially the entire fabric of the internet 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. This law provides protection to Interactive service providers that are the conduits for others’ speech and not the speaker themselves.
Writers for Forbes, the Huffington Post, and Fast Company have suggested that Backpage is a useful tool for law enforcement and the public in exposing the perpetrators of human trafficking. Numerous NGOs and others contend that the potential harm done by a website that features a section for adult posting is far greater than any actions the site may take to aid law enforcement. In many cases, the critics of Backpage say that these efforts are less than is necessary or possible. Some say that no efforts to police the site and report bad actors outweigh the negative impact the site may have in this area. The general counsel for National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said, "Backpage’s reporting is not conducted in good faith." Washington Post writer Glenn Kessler, in a number of his Fact Checker columns, debunked many of the inflated sex trafficking statistics and claims cited by politicians, NGOs, lawmakers and the media.
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 Tervor 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 their 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 CEO of VMG, said "Backpage has been a distraction—there's no question about it—to the core (editorial) properties." 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.
Beginning in 2011 a number of legal challenges were initiated by foes of Backpage in attempts to eliminate the adult section of the website and or shut down the website entirely. These actions included legislative initiatives as well as lawsuits brought by individuals; all of these lawsuits, which were mostly brought by politicians and NGOs, were successfully challenged by Backpage, which argued that the First Amendment protections of free speech were being compromised by any restriction on postings by individuals on the Backpage website. The Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution as well as the Commerce Clause were also cited as reasons that these efforts were illegal under U.S. law.
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. 20 Oct. 2009).
On 9 April 2018, the US Department of Justice's indictment against Backpage was unsealed. It contains details about 17 alleged victims which 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,"
On 6 October 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 stated 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.
A range of observers immediately criticized the arrests, including writers such as Mike Masnick at Techdirt, Noah Feldman at Bloomberg and Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason.com. Masnick points out that the arrests are in contradiction to section 230 of the CDA and the First Amendment rights of Backpage as has been upheld in numerous court decisions over the five previous years. He posited that AG Harris was more interested in the publicity from the arrests for political gain than in enforcing a law she had previously admitted was unenforceable by individual states as specified in section 230. In addition he points out that the details in the complaint appear to support Backpage’s assertion that it responds appropriately when advised of illegal ads on its site and removes them promptly.
Feldman said: "It takes a lot to turn a publisher of sex ads into a First Amendment hero. But the attorney general of California has managed the feat. By charging Carl Ferrer, the chief executive of Backpage.com, with pimping and sex trafficking in minors, Kamala Harris has seriously breached the constitutional wall meant to protect the free press."
On 17 October, attorneys for Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey, sent a letter to the California AG Kamala Harris asking that all charges against their clients be dropped. The AG’s office did not agree to the request for dismissal.
On 19 October 2016, attorneys for Backpage filed a Demurrer to the Criminal Complaint against CEO Carl Ferrer and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin. In it they argued that all charges against their clients should be dismissed based upon, among other things, that the Attorney General’s prosecution "tramples First Amendment Rights and is flatly barred by Section 230 as she has admitted". Numerous previous court ruling and decisions were cited in the Demurrer supporting this position.
The AG filed its response to the Demurrer on 4 November 2016. Backpage Attorneys filed their reply in support of the Demurrer on 10 November 2016. On 16 November 2016 Judge Michael Bowman of the Superior Court of the State of California issued a tentative ruling in this case supporting the position of Backpage and granting its request for dismissal of the case. He then heard oral arguments in his courtroom from both parties and indicated he would issue a final ruling by 9 December 2016.
On 9 December 2016, Judge Bowman issued a Final Ruling 62 on this matter. 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.”
On December 23, 2016, the state of California then filed new charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former Backpage owners Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin. They were charged with pimping and money laundering.
Lawyers for Backpage responded that the charges rehashed the earlier case that had been dismissed on December 9, 2016. Jim Grant, an attorney for Backpage said: “She (CA AG Kamala Harris) cannot avoid First Amendment protections, federal law or her obligations to follow the law, although her new complaint is a transparent effort to do exactly that." Arraignment was set for January 11, 2017.
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 10 January 2017.
On 9 January 2017, the United States Supreme Court refused to re-consider a ruling by the U.S 1st Circuit Court of Appeals that a suit filed in Boston federal court in 2014 against Backpage by three women who claimed that Backpage was responsible for them being forced into illegal sex transactions. The Court of Appeals held that Backpage could not be held liable as the "publisher or speaker" for postings on its site by third parties in accordance with the protections provided to website operators under section 230 of the CDA.
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 9 April 2018, the US Department of Justice's indictment against Backpage was unsealed. The 93 charges include, but are not limited to, "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 6 April 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.
On 12 April 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 others alleged co-conspirators, such as but not limited to founders Michael Lacy and James Larkin.
Backpage.com was formed in 2004, but didn't factor much in vice investigations until its adult services section flooded with ads around 2010, the same year Craigslist stopped its adult section.
Last September, however, the Supreme Court in Washington state ruled 6-3 that a 2012 suit against Backpage.com by three Washington teenaged girls who were allegedly trafficked on the site, could proceed, in what turned out to be a preliminary blow against the site.Backpage was seized by the federal government on April 6th, 2018.
It's the more marginalized and poorer workers who are hit hardest by this.