The Death of BackPage.com

Yesterday a dream of Beth Klein’s came true, BackPage.com died. The on-line brothel – which has trafficked more than 80% of all victims and where hundreds of missing children were sold – was removed from the web. It happened after a Senate subcommittee released its report and just before a scheduled hearing during which internal operations could have been brought into daylight. The executives of the electronic brothel were too ashamed to talk about their activities, and they all took the 5th.

The website was founded in 2004 and operates in cities around the world. It began as a part of Craigslist. In 2010 Craigslist (and Ebay related company) divested Backpage which operated for profit until yesterday.

“This is a concerted effort to build a business enterprise around the trafficking of human beings,” Yiota Souras, general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek last October. The center has identified more than 420 cases of missing children who wound up in Backpage ads. A separate team led by Arizona State University researchers has found more than 150 Backpage ads that feature minors.

The Report reviewed the company documents, totaling more than 1.1-million pages, and found evidence that Backpage knowingly facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking. The business was highly profitable and experienced explosive growth, from $5.3 million in gross revenue in 2008 to $135 million in 2014.

Backpage has faced several lawsuits by women who say they were trafficked through the site and calls from The Sheriff of Chicago and others to cease its adult operations. Every lawsuit to shut it down has been dismissed ironically under an internet free speech law that Senator Ron Portman of Oregon sponsored. Ironically, Senator Portman was a co-chair of the anti-Backpage subcommittee. His law 47 U.S.C. 230 (Section 230), passed in 1996 was intended to protect websites from liability for third party content. This very law has protected the crime.

Last October, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced charges against the website’s chief executive officer, Carl Ferrer, and its founders, James Larkin and Michael Lacey. A judge dismissed those charges in December; about two weeks later, Harris announced new charges against the men.

Back page whined: “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 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a 53-page report on the findings from its investigation. “The company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability,” the report said. “The internal company documents obtained by the Subcommittee conclusively show that Backpage’s public defense is a fiction.” The report went on to say that Backpage had “concealed evidence of criminality” by editing ads, that it had acknowledged its role in facilitating sex trafficking and that Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin continued to own the website even though they had claimed to have distanced themselves from it.

Senator Claire McCaskill said Monday on Twitter, “It pays to never give up. Congressional investigations matter.” In another tweet, she indicated that the hearing would proceed despite Backpage’s decision to remove its adult ads.

Abolitionists celebrated the page’s death. The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) vowed to “fight back,” saying in a statement:

“It is hard to put into words the intense anxiety, stress and sense of oppression our community is currently experiencing. Right now, thousands of individuals are wondering where they are going to go to earn money they need to pay rent, buy their family’s clothes and food and fill their metro card or gas tank.”

Perhaps a look at the job ads on Craigslist would be a good move.

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