Charges against the founders of Backpage, a personals ad website recently seized by federal authorities, were unveiled by the Phoenix U.S. Attorney's office Monday, the latest development in a federal crackdown on digital prostitution.
Backpage cofounders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin are among seven defendants facing 93 federal charges pertaining to conspiring to knowingly facilitate prostitution offenses. Backpage served as the internet's leading forum for prostitution ads, including ads seeking to prostitute minors, the Justice Department claimed in a Monday afternoon release.
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The indictments come after the government seized Backpage's website on Friday, leaving the site's visitors to find only an official takedown notice from the Department of Justice.
"For far too long, Backpage.com existed as the dominant marketplace for illicit commercial sex, a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike. But this illegality stops right now. Last Friday, the Department of Justice seized Backpage, and it can no longer be used by criminals to promote and facilitate human trafficking," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Backpage has long claimed exemption from liability for its users postings, and that its compliance with investigations means that its existence creates a better status quo for prostitutes than the alternative. But the website faced scrutiny when a Senate subcommittee investigation found that Backpage employees had knowingly altered keywords in postings to remove language indicative of criminality, including posts advertising child sex trafficking. Those postings were not passed along to law enforcement.
"Backpage had good reason to conceal its editing practices: Those practices served to sanitize the content of innumerable advertisements for illegal transactions—even as Backpage represented to the public and the courts that it merely hosted content others had created," the report explained.
Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), chairman of the investigating subcommittee, praised the Justice Department's indictment and shutdown of Backpage.
"The indictment of Backpage is good news for victims and survivors of online sex trafficking. This website is hub for the selling of women and children online, and it's an important step forward in our efforts to hold online sex traffickers accountable," Portman said. "Our bipartisan work has made a significant difference in raising awareness of these trafficking crimes and informed our efforts to craft a narrow legislative solution that is now ready to be signed into law."
Under preexisting law, websites are not liable for content posted by their users. But that has changed with the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, commonly called FOSTA, and sometimes referred to by the acronym of its predecessor bill, SESTA. FOSTA exposes websites to possible liability for prostitution conducted on their platform, with consequences including up to 10 years in prison.
Internet privacy advocates argue FOSTA will cause online platforms to suppress their users' speech, leading to a less free internet. Responding directly to the passage of FOSTA, Craigslist deleted its popular personals page last month, rather than attempt to filter out prostitution postings.
FOSTA has also been attacked by pro-prostitution groups such as The Women's March, which wrote on Twitter that, "The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women's rights."
But the Justice Department sees its seizure of Backpage, and enforcement of FOSTA, as part of a larger commitment to women's rights specifically. At a Friday event, "Improving the Lives of Women through a Proactive Focus on Violent Crime," Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams argued as much.
"Women and children who have been treated as commodities, literally bought and sold—the Department's work to stop human trafficking gives them their lives back. Victims controlled by their captors through violence, deception, and manipulation—it gives them their control back. And that work speaks for those who can no longer speak for themselves," Williams said.
"By never wavering in our commitment to prosecute violent crime, we are—by definition—fighting to improve the lives of women," she added.