from the Taking-a-si-SESTA dept.
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
On Friday, federal law enforcement authorities seized Backpage domain names, including Backpage.com and Backpage.ca. In addition, the Arizona Republic reported that on Friday morning, law enforcement raided the Sedona-area home of Michael Lacey, a co-founder of the site.
For years, Backpage has acted with impunity as a place that offered thinly veiled online prostitution ads. In December 2016, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and his co-defendants beat back a state prosecution in California.
Previously: Supreme Court Chief Justice Blocks Congressional Subpoena Over First Amendment Rights
Backpage's Dallas Offices Raided, CEO Charged With "Pimping"
"Pimping" Charges Against Backpage Executives Dismissed
After Release of U.S. Senate Report, Backpage Shuts Down U.S. Adult Section
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday temporarily blocked a congressional subpoena that seeks information on how the classified advertising website Backpage.com screens ads for possible sex trafficking.
The order came hours after Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer asked the high court to intervene, saying the case threatens the First Amendment rights of online publishers.
A federal appeals court ruled 2-1 on Friday that the website must respond to the subpoena within 10 days. Roberts said Backpage does not have to comply with the appeals court order until further action from the Supreme Court.
[...] The Senate panel has tried for nearly a year to force Backpage to produce certain documents as part of its investigation into human trafficking over the Internet.
After the website refused to comply, the Senate voted 96-0 in March to hold the website in contempt.
[...] While Backpage has produced over 16,000 pages of documents responding to the subpoena, Ferrer said documents relating to the website's system for reviewing ads are part of the editorial process protected under the First Amendment.
"This case presents a question of exceptional nationwide importance involving the protection the First Amendment provides to online publishers of third-party content when they engage in core editorial functions," Ferrer said in a brief filed to Roberts.
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."
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."
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 Recorder reports on efforts to weaken Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act:
[...] §230 has proven to be one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet. In the past two decades, we've (EFF) filed well over 20 legal briefs in support of §230, probably more than on any other issue, in response to attempts to undermine or sneak around the statute. Thankfully, most of these attempts were unsuccessful.
[...] The first wave of attacks on §230's protections came from plaintiffs who tried to plead around §230 in an attempt to force intermediaries to take down online speech they didn't like.
[...] The second wave of attacks came from plaintiffs trying to deny §230 protection to ordinary users who reposted content authored by others
[...] Another wave of attacks, also in the mid-2000s, came as plaintiffs tried to use the Fair Housing Act to hold intermediaries responsible when users posted housing advertisements that violated the law.
[...] We are now squarely in the middle of a fourth wave of attack—efforts to hold intermediaries responsible for extremist or illegal online content. The goal, again, seems to be forcing intermediaries to actively screen users and censor speech. Many of these efforts are motivated by noble intentions, and the speech at issue is often horrible, but these efforts also risk devastating the Internet as we know it.
The U.S. Senate just voted 97-2 to pass the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA, H.R. 1865), a bill that silences online speech by forcing Internet platforms to censor their users. As lobbyists and members of Congress applaud themselves for enacting a law tackling the problem of trafficking, let's be clear: Congress just made trafficking victims less safe, not more.
The version of FOSTA that just passed the Senate combined an earlier version of FOSTA (what we call FOSTA 2.0) with the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693). The history of SESTA/FOSTA—a bad bill that turned into a worse bill and then was rushed through votes in both houses of Congress—is a story about Congress' failure to see that its good intentions can result in bad law. It's a story of Congress' failure to listen to the constituents who'd be most affected by the laws it passed. It's also the story of some players in the tech sector choosing to settle for compromises and half-wins that will put ordinary people in danger.
[...] Throughout the SESTA/FOSTA debate, the bills' proponents provided little to no evidence that increased platform liability would do anything to reduce trafficking. On the other hand, the bills' opponents have presented a great deal of evidence that shutting down platforms where sexual services are advertised exposes trafficking victims to more danger.
Freedom Network USA—the largest national network of organizations working to reduce trafficking in their communities—spoke out early to express grave concerns [.pdf] that removing sexual ads from the Internet would also remove the best chance trafficking victims had of being found and helped by organizations like theirs as well as law enforcement agencies.
In response to the passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), Craigslist has removed Personals sections for U.S. users:
Classified advertising website Craigslist has closed its dating ads section in the US, in response to a new bill against sex trafficking.
The bill states that websites can now be punished for "facilitating" prostitution and sex trafficking.
Ads promoting prostitution and child sexual abuse have previously been posted in the "personals" section of Craigslist.
The company said keeping the section open in the US was too much of a risk.
In a statement, Craigslist said the new law would "subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully".
A sex worker review website has blocked U.S. users in anticipation of the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA) coming into effect. U.S.-based users can still access it with a VPN, while all visitors are asked to "not access TER from a Prohibited Country":
A website that hosts customer reviews of sex workers has started blocking Internet users in the United States because of forthcoming changes in US law. Congress recently passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act bill (SESTA), and President Trump is expected to sign it into law. SESTA will make it easier to prosecute websites that host third-party content that promotes or facilitates prostitution, even in cases when the sex workers aren't victims of trafficking.
After Congress approved the bill, Craigslist removed its "Personals" section and Reddit removed some sex-related subreddits. The Erotic Review (TER) has followed suit by blocking any user who appears to be visiting the website from the United States. "As a result of this new law, TER has made the difficult decision to block access to the website from the United States until such time as the courts have enjoined enforcement of the law, the law has been repealed or amended, or TER has found a way to sufficiently address any legal concerns created by the new law," the website's home page says in a notice to anyone who accesses the site from a US location.
[...] SESTA was inspired largely by the existence of Backpage. But federal law enforcement authorities were able to shut Backpage down last week, even though SESTA hasn't been signed into law yet. Trump may sign the bill this week. [...] Some sex workers have spoken out against SESTA, saying that websites can help sex workers screen clients and avoid dangerous situations. A group called Survivors Against SESTA says the new law "will cause harm to vulnerable populations engaging in the sex trade without helping trafficking victims."
Backpage's CEO Carl Ferrer took a plea deal one day before the site got shut down:
The CEO and co-founder of the classified ad website Backpage.com cut a plea deal with state and federal prosecutors, admitting that he knew that the site had become a massive online marketplace for prostitution. Carl Ferrer, 57, agreed to plead guilty to charges in state courts in Texas and California and federal charges in Arizona in a bid to resolve an array of criminal investigations he was facing over his role in the site. The plea deal appears to limit Ferrer's total potential prison time to no more than five years.
"I have long been aware that the vast majority of these advertisements are, in fact, advertisements for prostitution services (which are not protected by the First Amendment and which are illegal in 49 states and much of Nevada)," Ferrer acknowledged in a written statement that was part of the plea bargain.
During a lengthy Senate investigation, Ferrer and other Backpage officials insisted they were policing the website aggressively to remove such advertising. However, Ferrer admitted in the plea deal that those efforts were just window dressing. "I worked with my co-conspirators to create 'moderation' processes through which Backpage would remove terms and pictures that were particularly indicative of prostitution and then publish a revised version of the ad," he said in the plea document. "It was merely intended to create a veneer of deniability for Backpage."
The Washington Post reports that Ferrer agreed to testify against co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin.
The organizers of the Women's March have tweeted their opposition to the Backpage shutdown. Some conservatives are not amused, but sex workers have been critical of the shutdown and the passage of the SESTA law:
"Girls are going back to the streets and they are going to die in the streets, and nobody cares," said Calida, a mother of two, who said she used to do street work and fears she will have to start again to make ends meet. "Everybody is terrified."