Like Craigslist before it, Backpage.com has shut down the "Adult" section of its classified-ad website, amid a seemingly endless stream of government pressure. In both cases, state and federal authorities have maintained that the mere presence of open forums for user-generated adult advertising creates a market for child sex-trafficking.
Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and his associates have been subject to lawsuits, criminal charges, economic bullying, and Congressional hearings—the latest of which will take place today, January 10, before the U.S. Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations—in an attempt to thwart this supposed sex trade. But after proclaiming innocence and pushing back and for several years, Backpage will now—"as the direct result of unconstitutional government censorship," its lawyers said in a statement—comply with demands to end its adult-ad section.
Last fall, former California Attorney General Kamala Harris tried to convict Ferrer and former Backpage.com heads Michael Lacey and James Larkin (founders of Village Voice media) of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. A judge threw out the charges, saying they were unconstitutional and violated federal law, which specifies—under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—that third-party publishers can't be held criminally liable for the content of user-generated posts. Section 230 doesn't just stop sites like Craigslist and Backpage from getting in trouble if someone posts a prostitution ad there but allows Reddit to exist without its CEO getting charged for every credible user threat, keeps Facebook from being shut down after some 20-year-old picks up a 17-year-old girl there, prevents Craigslist from being found guilty every time someone rips someone off over a used washer, and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content.
But despite Section 230's alleged protections, government officials have again and again gone after Backpage for allowing adult ads, even though these ads do not directly reference illegal activity and any illegal activity that results from folks finding each other via Backpage takes place far outside of its owners or operators' purview. How should Backpage operators know whether a woman offering dominatrix services or a "full-body sensual massage" on the site is really offering dominatrix services or a full-body sensual massage, and not simply having sex for money? How can they know if the poster who says she's 18 is actually a few months shy of it? There's no way they can, and yet this lack of omnipotence and pre-cognition apparently won't do. As Backpage, and Craigslist before it, have shown, websites are more than welcome to offer open forums for user posts without government interference so long as none of the posts have anything to do with sexuality. Yet the moment "adult" work comes into play, all free-speech protections and anti-censorship agendas dissipate. Lawmakers, prosecutors, and the media who fellate them start saying things like, "If it saves only one child…"
Shutting down Backpage won't save even one child, though, or one adult, or anybody. Backpage.com is a neutral publishing platform, albeit one that's become popular among sex workers ranging from strippers and erotic masseuses to people who offer sex for a fee. Without its adult section, sex workers of all ages will have to find some other way to advertise—perhaps simply by moving to a more discreet section of the site, as was done on Craigslist (anyone who thinks ridding Craigslist of its adult-services section actually thwarted commercial-sex advertising there should check out the site's "Casual Encounters" section now); perhaps by advertising elsewhere online (the internet is a vast place); or perhaps by returning to older client-gathering methods, like word-of-mouth or walking the streets. But what doesn't happen in all but the most fervent prohibitionist imaginations is that people whose livelihoods depend on prostitution or more legal forms of erotic work simply stop doing said work because one website won't take their ads anymore.
And authorities know this. In the criminal complaint against Ferrer, Larkin, and Lacey in California, officials noted that many of the women they spoke with who were now advertising services on Backpage had previously advertised on Cragislist's adult section, on MyRedbook.com (shut down by the feds in 2014), and on other websites and escorting forums which had since been banned. The only way officials are going to stop online ads for prostitution is by ramping up their already intensive efforts hundreds-fold and going after any and all websites that allow user-generated content. I'm beginning to think they might try.
"As federal appeals court Judge Richard Posner has described, the goal is either to 'suffocate' Backpage out of existence or use the awesome powers of the government to force Backpage to follow in the footsteps of Craigslist and abandon its Adult advertising section," Backpage attorneys said in a Monday statement. "Posner described such tactics as 'a formula for permitting unauthorized, unregulated, foolproof, lawless government coercion.'"
Sadly, these hammer-handed attempts actually hurt most the people they claim to help: young people forced or coerced into prostitution. Backpage has helped law-enforcement in hundreds of investigations into missing minors and potential sex-trafficking victims by turning over their contact and financial info (or that of those who posted their ads) to authorities when such ads are discovered, as well as flagging ads that contain images of suspiciously young individuals. And because Backpage operates across the country, authorities searching for victim or perpetrators on the move could sometimes trace their movements via Backpage ads.
"It's a sad day for America's children victimized by prostitution," Lois Lee, founder and president of sex-trafficking victim organizaiton Children of the Night, said Monday. "Backpage.com was a critical investigative tool depended on by America's vice detectives and agents in the field to locate and recover missing children and to arrest and successfully prosecute the pimps who prostitute children. The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique."
"I have worked in this field my entire adult life," Lee added. "Child prostitution existed long before Backpage or the Internet. Backpage is not the cause or even a cause. Backpage was an opportunity to better attack the problem."