Backpage.com—known to some as a hellscape of sex-trafficked children and to others as a place where sex workers advertise their services—was seized on April 6 by federal law enforcement. The website was shut down, and those who ran it were arrested.
The indictment against seven of the site's executives, including the website's founders, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, includes charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering. Using the company's internal documents, such as emails and notes from private meetings, the U.S. District Court of Arizona makes the case that the defendants knew there were "prostitution ads" on their site.
The indictment even quotes Lacey, and categorizes his statement as bragging, saying "Eliminating adult advertising will in no way eliminate or even reduce the incident of prostitution in this country.... For the very first time, the oldest profession in the world has transparency, record keeping and safeguards."
Backpage started as the literal back page of the Phoenix New Times, also founded by Lacey and Larkin. They moved the classified section online in 2004. By 2011, it was the second-largest online classifieds after Craigslist, and a multi-million-dollar business.
It was no secret to anyone that adult advertising was on the site. What is unclear is how many of the ads were sex traffickers looking to sell enslaved women and children and how many were consensual sex workers looking for a safe place to sell their services and vet potential clients.
Despite all the hype around an epidemic of human trafficking across the nation, law enforcement statics show something more modest. In 2016, 881 people nationwide were suspected of sex trafficking, according to FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program—or about 1 percent of the suspected sex-offenders that year.
Tucson Police Department's own human trafficking task force had 511 sex and labor trafficking investigations from February 2015 to March 2018, with relatively few trafficking arrests, according to police records. While the investigations led to 244 arrests, for reasons that include prohibited possession of a firearm, narcotics charges and felony warrants, only 22 of the arrests were for trafficking or trafficking-related charges such as pimping.
Backpage was one of the tools TPD used to look for people they suspected of underage prostitution or being trafficked, said Sgt. Ben Frie, supervisor of TPD's Street Crimes Interdiction Unit, in an email.
He has mixed feelings about the site's seizure, saying that on one hand the site "had become the virtual equivalent of an open air sex market" and on the other, Backpage gave police a place to start looking for people being trafficked. "This seizure will not end trafficking," he said. "The medium which is used will now evolve. The access that law enforcement will have to the new medium is as yet to be determined." Backpage's seizure came just after the U.S. House and Senate each passed bipartisan legislation, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), aimed at shutting down the site anyway, both which had yet to be signed into law as of the Weekly's print deadline, on April 10.
The legislation amends the Communications Decency Act, which states that host sites aren't responsible for what users put on the platform. The Act is meant to protect First Amendment rights, keeping publications from censoring due to fear of legal retribution. The new laws will allow states and individuals to sue sites they believe are enabling sex trafficking.
But the legislation largely conflates trafficking with all sex work and could cover almost any sex-related forum. FOSTA says anyone who "owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service ... to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person" can spend up to 10 years in prison.
Proponents of SESTA/FOSTA said the new law would give law enforcement the power to go after Backpage and other sites accused of being used for sex trafficking. But, as the Backpage bust demonstates, the prosecution already had enough evidence to go after them, despite the Communications Decency Act, because platforms were already held accountable for directly contributing to illegal activity.
The Communications Decency Act doesn't shield a platform from criminal or civil liability for its own bad actions, only from the bad actions of others on its site, explained Elliot Harmon from Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital-rights group.
SESTA/FOSTA has the power to "chill legitimate speech online," he said, adding that the idea that platforms have the power to censor specific kinds of speech is wrong, and the only way to comply with such laws is to shut down a whole site.
Harmon explains that automated filters are not progressive enough to accurately censor illegal activity. And many online platforms just can't afford the manpower it would take to achieve it.
A good example is Google's PerspectiveAPI, a filter designed to look for patterns and measure "toxicity" in online discussions. Harmon says the phrase "I am a man" was found to be 20 percent toxic; "I am a woman" was 40 percent toxic; and "I am a black man" was 80 percent toxic.
Harmon said if you develop a filter to block ads for people being trafficked, it's quite likely the same filter would censor a sex trafficking victim telling his or her story.
"Whenever platforms choose to err on the side of censorship...it's almost always the case that people who are most silenced by these policies are the people who are most marginalized," he said.
Right after the SESTA/FOSTA passed, Craigslist shuttered its personal ads sections, saying they couldn't risk being held liable for others' use. And Reddit banned several sex worker forums, including "escorts" and "sugar daddy."
Another byproduct of such online censorship is not only are sex trafficking victims harder to find, but consensual sex workers are also pushed into the shadows.
Until recently Craigslist had a personal ad section, but they shut down their erotic service section in 2010 due to increasing pressure from law enforcement and politicians. But the site allowed sex workers not only a safe way to vet clients but more independence, so they wouldn't have to work for a pimp or agency.
In a 2017 study led by Baylor University economics professor Scott Cunningham, researchers attributed a 17 percent drop in female homicides in U.S. cities, not counting incidence of death from domestic-violence, to the creation of Craigslist's erotic services section.
Local activist and former sex worker Juliana Piccillo says Backpage's closure is an apocalypse for sex workers. Through online advertising, sex workers have a safer way to vet clients than if they only have the option to work on the street. Rather than get into a stranger's car, sex workers could ask potential clients for references. They had an opportunity to give a friend a client's number and tell the friend when and where they would be working.
Piccillo also points out that shutting down Backpage and sites like it disproportionately affects more marginalized and impoverished sex workers, who have no safety net to fall back on.
"We're going to see people getting in to dangerous situations with bad clients because they're desperate for money," Piccillo said. "Online advertising gave sex workers a tremendous amount of safety and now it's gone. And people don't know what they're going to do to buy groceries and pay their rent next month."