Executives for the online classified advertising website Backpage have seen the charges against them dismissed:
Last month, a California judge tentatively ruled that he would dismiss charges lodged by California's attorney general against Backpage.com's chief executive and two of its former owners. The tables seemed to turn after a November 16 hearing in which Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman decided against following his tentative ruling. But on Friday, the judge issued a final order that virtually mirrored the earlier one: charges dismissed.
[...] Judge Bowman agreed with the defendants, including former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, that they were protected, among other things, by the Communications Decency Act, and hence they were not liable for third-party ads posted by others.
"Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech in that Congress did not wish to hold liable 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," the judge initially ruled. Judge Bowman issued nearly the same language (PDF) in his latest ruling: "By enacting the CDA, Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech by providing for both a foreclosure from prosecution and an affirmative defense at trial for those who are deemed an internet service provider."
Backpage, an online classified advertising website, has had its offices in Dallas, Texas raided. The CEO was arrested in Texas on a California warrant, and two others have also been charged with crimes related to the operation of the website:
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and California Attorney General Kamala Harris said that a three-year-long joint investigation revealed that adult and child sex trafficking victims were forced into prostitution through escort ads that appear on the web site. They also alleged that Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin made millions of dollars from illegal sex trade.
Ferrer faces charges of pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping, while Lacey and Larkin face conspiracy to commit pimping charges. Lacey and Larkin were not in custody on Thursday, and it was not immediately clear when Ferrer would make his first court appearance. Undercover officers in California posted escort ads online that led them to johns who used Backpage, and authorities interviewed more than a half dozen sex trafficking victims who confirmed they paid Backpage to post ads on the web site promoting prostitution.
[...] In addition to its adult services ads, Backpage also publishes advertising from people renting apartments, selling a car or advertising a job opening. But the company's internal revenue reports show that from January 2013 to March 2015, nearly 99% of Backpage's worldwide income was generated from the web site's "adult" section, according to charging documents filed in California. The company collected over $51 million revenue in California during that period.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a Chicago-area Sheriff who was ordered by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to stop threatening credit card companies that do business with Backpage. A month ago, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts temporarily blocked a Congressional subpoena into the site's operations on First Amendment grounds.
Law enforcement officials around the country have complained about prostitution (especially that of children) facilitated by Backpage for years. Now California and Texas officials will have to prove that Backpage's seemingly hands-off approach is illegal. Reason's blog notes that Carl Ferrer is not accused of performing the crimes he has been charged with, but is accused of running a website that others used to facilitate crimes. Backpage also reports ads suspected of containing under-18s to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC's President says the organization applauds the charges and that "the criminal action initiated today will lead to new hope for children who are sold for sex online."
The first result in a Google News search for "backpage" is sometimes a randomly placed text ad for their site: "Free classified ads with photos. Find houses and apts for rent, personals, jobs, cats and dogs for sale."
California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who will be resigning soon prior to joining Congress as a U.S. Senator, has filed new "pimping" charges against the CEO and other executives of Backpage. The previous set of charges were dismissed by a judge less than two weeks ago. Backpage is an online classified advertising website known for its listings of escort services:
Harris said the new charges were based on new evidence. A Sacramento County judge threw out pimping charges against the men on 9 December, citing federal free-speech laws. In the latest case, filed in Sacramento County superior court, Harris claims Backpage illegally funnelled money through multiple companies and created various websites to get around banks that refused to process transactions. She also alleged that the company used photos of women from Backpage on other sites without their permission in order to increase revenue and knowingly profited from the proceeds of prostitution.
"By creating an online brothel – a hotbed of illicit and exploitative activity – Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin preyed on vulnerable victims, including children, and profited from their exploitation," Harris said in a statement.
Hours after the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report claiming that online classifieds website Backpage "knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its adult ads", Backpage shut down the U.S. adult advertising section of its site:
The online classified advertising site Backpage.com abruptly shut its "adult" section on Monday, yielding to a campaign by state and federal government officials to close a service they contend promotes prostitution and human trafficking. The unexpected move came hours after a U.S. Senate subcommittee released a report accusing Backpage of actively editing posts on the site to remove evidence of child sex trafficking.
In announcing its decision, Backpage said it was the victim of government censorship. Backpage attorneys said executives would appear at a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, but would not testify.
U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill, however, said their subcommittee found Backpage had been far more complicit in sex trafficking than previously known. "Backpage's response wasn't to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site," they said in a statement. "That's not 'censorship' — it's validation of our findings."
On the same day, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from three sex trafficking victims accusing Backpage of facilitating the exploitation of children. The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that said Backpage is shielded from liability by federal law since the site's classified ads are posted by users.
The tech industry has a clear history of sexism and misogyny, but a recent Newsweek report highlights another problem. The publication got its hands on a slew of emails sent to brothels and pimps between 2014 and 2016 that document the industry's patronage of brothels and purchasing of services from trafficked sex workers. Among the emails, which were obtained through a public records request to the King County Prosecutor's Office, were 67 sent from Microsoft employee email accounts, 63 from Amazon accounts and dozens more from companies like Boeing, T-Mobile, Oracle and local Seattle tech firms.
Some of the emails were collected during a 2015 sting operation that targeted sex worker review boards and resulted in the arrest of 18 individuals, including high-level Amazon and Microsoft directors. Two opted for a trial, which is currently set to begin in March.
Seattle's sex industry has grown right alongside its tech industry and the city's authorities have said that some men spend up to $50,000 per year on sex workers. Brothels are even known to advertise how close they are to tech offices. Alex Trouteaud, director of policy and research at the anti-trafficking organization Demand Abolition, told Newsweek that the tech industry is a "culture that has readily embraced trafficking."
Notorious website backpage.com has been seized according to NY Daily News.
Sex ads platform Backpage.com was seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Friday hours after its founder's Phoenix home was raided.
Visitors to the site landed on a notice from the federal government announcing its seizure.
"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, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, with analytical assistance from the Joint Regional Intelligence Center," the announcement read.
Founder's home also raided by the FBI Friday morning.
U.S. Government Seizes backpage.com