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The Backpage Scandal Isn't What You Think

How indie media entrepreneurs James Larkin and Michael Lacey became the targets of a federal witchhunt.

Joanna AndreassonJoanna AndreassonIn April 2018, federal agents raided the Arizona homes of Michael Lacey and James Larkin, the longtime publishers of an alt-weekly empire and founders of the classified-ads site Backpage.com.

"There were 20 to 25 agents on the property in flak jackets, all with guns," says Lacey, whose wife's family had been visiting at the time; an armed agent had pulled her nearly 80-year-old mom naked from the shower. After more than a week in jail, Lacey and Larkin were released on $1 million bond apiece but confined to Maricopa County and forced to wear ankle monitors. The Backpage homepage now declares the site seized by the FBI and other federal agencies.

The pair had been under escalating legal and political pressure for years, with an array of high-profile politicians and law enforcement figures accusing Backpage of abetting sexual exploitation. The site's "Adult" section housed ads for escorts, dominatrixes, strippers, webcammers, and other legal categories of adult entertainment—but media coverage of the bust framed it as a victory against "human trafficking."

The actual charges included in the federal indictment against Lacey, Larkin, and several former colleagues say otherwise. They stand accused of violating the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution, of money laundering, and of conspiracy.

The two men's publishing careers began with the launch of the Phoenix New Times in 1970. By the time they sold the publication in 2012, its parent company owned 17 weekly papers, including New York City's iconic Village Voice, plus outlets in Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, and St. Louis. The papers had relied heavily on classified ads for revenue, but as the internet gained ground, print "classifieds just got wiped out," says Larkin. So in 2004, they launched Backpage.com to fill the gap.

Over time, the site became popular and profitable—but its success made it a target in a tangle of political crusades, subject to a variety of boycotts, investigations, and lawsuits. At first, Lacey and Larkin were unfazed. "We've had personals from day one," says Larkin. "We've had adult advertising from 1970."

In addition, the pair had good reason to believe that both the First Amendment and a federal statute were on their side. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, digital platforms don't count as the speakers of things their users or commenters post. This means they can't be convicted on state charges or sued in civil court for nonprotected speech—true threats, defamation, solicitations to commit crimes, and so forth—that their users might engage in. Voluntary efforts from the platform to curb or prohibit such content (by employing content monitors and automated filters, for example) don't change that.

Because of Section 230, Lacey and Larkin credibly thought they were safe from ambitious private lawyers and state attorneys general who wanted to treat them as complicit in illegal transactions they unknowingly facilitated through Backpage. (The platform had taken a tough stance on posts involving minors but was more lax about "escort" ads that hinted at adult prostitution.) But that provision, it turned out, couldn't stop the feds from targeting them under the same laws it has been using against actual prostitution rings for more than a century.

Prostitution is banned in almost every municipality in the country, generally as a misdemeanor offense. Though it is not against federal law, federal statutes like the Travel Act and the Mann Act declare that minor local offenses can become federal business if state lines are crossed—even electronically.

In Backpage's case, the government argued that running a website where sex workers advertised was enough to make the owners guilty of promoting prostitution. Thus, the "enterprise," headquartered in Phoenix but used by people around the country, was involved in unlawful conduct involving interstate commerce and travel.

Notably, none of the charges against Backpage are for sex trafficking, which is against federal law. In fact, for years Lacey and Larkin's outfit had been integral to law enforcement efforts—reporting suspected minors who turned out to be runaway teenagers, providing records on criminals who had used the site, and testifying in trials that led to federal indictments against abusive pimps.

Carl Ferrer, a previous vice president and CEO of Backpage under Lacey and Larkin who bought the company from them in 2015, even received a commendation from the Department of Justice for his help fighting sex trafficking. "Can't do this without your help," an FBI agent working juvenile exploitation cases wrote to Backpage staff in 2015—one of hundreds of positive comments the platform received from law enforcement officers. And since the site was seized in April, numerous local news reports have cited cops saying it's now harder to find missing young people and to nab potential pimps.

The disparity between rank-and-file police comments and those made by elected officials is stark. The former generally acknowledge that commercial sex—yes, sometimes involving minors and/or victims of abuse—will go on with or without digital tools to facilitate it. Shutting down Backpage didn't even make a dent in the volume of online adult ads, according to a Washington Post analysis. It simply dispersed them through a wider range of platforms. Yet politicians insist on casting classifieds websites as the biggest cause and a main hub of forced and underage prostitution. Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) has described Backpage as the world's "top online brothel."

That the public case against Backpage bears so little resemblance to the actual charges against it is partly a result of a mass panic over the confluence of sex and technology. That cultural near-hysteria has been stoked by a strange-bedfellows coalition of the Christian right, progressive feminists, and opportunistic lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle.

Initially, the target was Craigslist, the earliest and most prominent platform for online classifieds. But that site escaped relatively unscathed by caving to a demand from the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) to remove a section explicitly labeled for adult advertising. The move didn't stop people from publishing ads for prostitution, of course—the posts merely moved to other parts of the platform. When NAAG made the same demand of Backpage, its founders refused, arguing, with Craigslist as evidence, that doing so would make no difference.

Lacey and Larkin were no strangers to suing, or getting sued by, the government. As the heads of New Times Inc. and later Village Voice Media, the men helped overturn Arizona's law against advertising abortion services, found themselves the target of a federal antitrust investigation, and won $3.75 million from Maricopa County after a wrongful arrest ordered by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (They funneled the money into the Frontera Fund, which finances Latino and migrant rights causes.) Nor did their alt-weeklies shy away from fights with local powerbrokers or larger media players, having published stories on the murder of Phoenix journalist Don Bolles that implicated local liquor bigwigs; taken aim in the '80s at Sen. John McCain's cozy relationship with savings-and-loan scammer Charles Keating; exposed Cindy McCain's drug troubles; and fact-checked falsehoods from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, to name a few examples.

"We've made considerable enemies over the course of 40 years of journalism," says Lacey.

The political campaign against them came to a head in January 2017, when they were forced to appear before a Senate committee. In theory, the hearing was focused on the narrow question of whether Backpage had intentionally edited user posts in a way that would eliminate its protection under Section 230. In practice, "it was a star chamber experience," Larkin says. "They didn't have any interest in anything other than their political grandstanding."

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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  • Alcibiades||

    Excellent and very informative article.
    Very depressing too.
    Hope Reason continues to cover this, important First Amendment principles are involved.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I came to say the same thing.

    Keep up the good work, ENB!

    It's disgusting that a nauseatingly bloated, sclerotic government has nothing better to do than to pick on two gentlemen who never hurt a fly. It's a nightmare where semiliterate bullies declared themselves king over all of us. It's Kafkaesque.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    "It's disgusting that a nauseatingly bloated, sclerotic government has nothing better to do than to pick on two gentlemen who never hurt a fly. It's a nightmare where semiliterate bullies declared themselves king over all of us."

    Not a bug, and not just a feature--its the entire thing.

  • Hank Phillips||

    I vote Libertarian and I approve this message. ENB has earned a raise.

  • Jerryskids||

    If the Backpage Scandal isn't exactly what I think it is, I'll eat my hat.
    /reads article
    /goes back to eating sausage gravy biscuits
    /no hats were eaten in the making of this comment

  • Conchfritters||

    The crazy thing is the local paper used to advertise garage sales, help wanted, and escorts in the classifieds as well.

  • creech||

    This isn't a 1st amendment story worth covering. Have you forgotten already about the outrageous denial of a press pass to one of a dozen or more CNN White House reporters? Why, if CNN wins that case, all the rest of us will be able to stroll into the White House press conferences and confront the president too.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The Media companies are naturally exercised over the President deciding he doesn't have to put up with people he doesn't like in his press conferences. Why, if that idea caught on, their privileged position as self-appointed High Priests of the Truth might be in danger!

    Good.

    A partisan President keeping all but a few favored lapdogs out of his press conferences wouldn't really affect much.

  • cravinbob||

    You missed the point that this is politicos using their hired guns to make a name for themselves and generate votes for "law and order". The media-fueled hysteria in concert with law enforcement and their bosses such as visiting prostitutes referred to as "human sex slaves" etc makes harassment appear to be crack downs on evil doers instead of shakedowns which is what it is as well. Federal criminal court has a record conviction rate of almost 100% and answers to no one. Joe Arpiao should have been in a jail not running one.
    A press pass is peanuts and CNN suing will only obligate them to show their true colors which has little to do with news and everything to do with bias. Acosta came off as a snotty brat not a professional and there is hardly anyone in the press that can truly call themselves a "journalist". The Fourth Amendment is the nature of this piece along with intrusive government.
    Drop your outrage in the "Bullshit" box on your way out. Trump has been more than available to the press and public than anyone before him.

  • Will Nonya||

    Land of the free...just be sure to do as you're told and don't make any trouble.

  • Conchfritters||

    Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) has described Backpage as the world's "top online brothel."

    Except that the internet can't suck my dick. What a fucking bitch. I can wait until she gets booted in the presidential primaries.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Kamala is what happens if you multiply National Socialism by -1. Its still socialism, but the vector has changed direction. This is why leftandright yo-yos never suspect there is a whole nother universe in the Nolan Chart.

  • Alcibiades||

    "Except that the internet can't suck my dick. What a fucking bitch. I can wait until she gets booted in the presidential primaries."

    That one's a bitch for sure, an evil, "Constitution stomping on, ignoring on, crapping on" fucking bitch.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    But she could be repurposed with a little trafficking...

  • Warren||

    The McLaughlin Group? What century is this?

  • Naaman Brown||

    "[Backpage] even received a commendation from the Department of Justice for ... help fighting sex trafficking. "Can't do this without your help," an FBI agent working juvenile exploitation cases wrote to Backpage staff in 2015—one of hundreds of positive comments the platform received from law enforcement officers. And since the site was seized in April, numerous local news reports have cited cops saying it's now harder to find missing young people and to nab potential pimps.

    In the Operation Fast and Furious Gunwalking Scandal (2009-2011), gun dealers were ordered by ATF to continue to sell guns to straw purchasers. Normally under Project Gunrunner, when gun dealers reported straw purchases to ATF, that was the last time a gun dealer saw the purchaser unless they were called to testify at trial of the straw purchaser and/or the actual buyer. Toward the end, D.C. bureaucrats demanded the names of the OFF dealers selling guns to cartel purchasers so they could make public examples out of them.

    This is nothing new among Washington bureaucrats, polticians or prosecutors.

    They can't stop the bad guys, so they take people with contact with bad guys, and make examples out of them (guilt by association), so they can show they are doing something. [cynic]Keeping their jobs secure by showing doing something (useless or counterproductive) while the problem becomes worse.[/cynic]

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The problem with the "Human Trafficking" panic is that it is the old Victorian/Edwardian White Slavery Panic with the serial numbers filed off. And since the White Slavery Panic was 99.99% utter bullshit, it's kind of hard to come up with real government actions that look like they are 'taking this seriously", so any actions they take are likely to be 99.99% utter bullshit, too.

    I hope that the Institute For Justice and similar organizations are standing ready to help the Backpage folks fight back. This is abuse of power, plain and simple. Furthermore it could (I think, but IANAL) be made into a useful precedent against asset forfeiture, in support of making Prosecutors play by the rules, etc.

    In the final analysis, sex work needs to be made legal, and not too heavily regulated either. It exists. It has existed since humans were only slightly more advanced than baboons, as evidenced by the way baboon females somethings use sex to get things. If upright moral women want to prevent their men from going to prostitutes for sex, they should try working on being pleasant to be around. The current from of Feminists are about as good company as an active jackhammer.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Conservative Comstock Law bigots are as fun to be around as marching jackboots. It's hard to fault the wymn with so much just cause scattered underfoot.

  • Mcgoo95||

    Nothing good will come out of this puritanical weaponizing of sexuality. The divide between men and women in this country is greater than it's ever been, men are tried and convicted in the court of public opinion and (many) women are all too happy to feast on their remains. Expect more mass shootings, extreme political unrest and general divisiveness in the future. It's what happens when you try to build a dam on river that is far too powerful to control.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Good is a relative thing to socialists. German nationalsocialism was elected by a population 97% Christian, and photos of cardinals, priests, bishops and a future Pope saluting or chatting with Hitler are easy to see at nobeliefs.com

  • jello.beyonce||

    Meanwhile, Jeffrey "Lolita Express and Underage Orgy Island" Epstein has largely escaped serious prosecution, even gaining protections from ongoing civil suits, whilst high-profile clients of his like Slick Willy Clinton and Donald Trump have remained completely shielded for raping underage prostitutes.

    Guess it pays to run drugs for the CIA.

  • ||

    Thanks for sharing such a interesting information krogerfeedback

  • Hank Phillips||

    Christian National Socialism depicted "jewry" in the exact same manner--reinforced by DW Griffith Movies and silent screen propaganda from Hollywood. The Austin Chronicle--(Econazi & communist goood, all else baaad)--bracketed its Backpage section with apologies and excuses, sanction of victim. Craigslist's use of the peace symbol is, of course, a red flag to the Ku-klux-Dixiecrat-Bircher Axis of Force. Then again, so are Democratic party proposals to schedule electrical power plants on the same legal footing as meth labs. The Dems falling on the sword for Eco-naziism and China's CO2 opened the floodgates for the more traditional form of National Socialism. Sad, but at least there's schadenfreude.

  • fortiva||

    I haven't used Backpage in years but I've always heard of nefarious stuff going on there. Indigo apply pre approved

  • killboyumeed847548588||

    When people are asked to use gut instinct to stop real but rare horrors, relying on racial stereotypes and other biases tends to rule.

    Is that why the cops pulled a gun on my friend the day I moved him and his babby mamma into my town. It's strange how one of the other regulars at the Wellness Center died of a drug overdoes latter that night in the Wellness Center bathroom.

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