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Backpage Shutters 'Adult' Ads Section Following Years of Government Bullying

"It's a sad day for America's children victimized by prostitution," said victims services advocate Lois Lee.

dualdflipflop/Flickrdualdflipflop/FlickrLike 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."

Photo Credit: dualdflipflop/Flickr

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  • UnCivilServant||

    Since all I ever hear about these sites is articles on reason talking about the 'adult' adverts, I am surprised there's any site left after that shut down.

  • SomeGuy||

    we could always turn reason comments into adult ads???

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    If they aren't then I feel like an idiot, as all my posts are coded calls for butt play.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    [goes to press BestUsedCarSales' butt 'play' button to view footage, accidentally presses 'record']

  • Quixote||

    Behold the hypocrisy of the so-called American "free speech community." If Reason actually believes these effort to restore dignity in our society are "unconstitutional," then let Reason put its money where its mouth is, and open an "adult advertisement" section right here on its website. But despite the fashionable complaints to which it gives voice, Reason knows very well what is permitted and what is not permitted, and it will not dare to cross the line into illegality — just as it will not dare, for example, to defend the unpresidented "First Amendment dissent" of a single, isolated judge in our nation's leading criminal "satire" case, documented at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • DesigNate||

    Yeah, it's total hypocrisy to not open themselves up to investigations and allegations from state's attorney's general.

    I believe Mr. Bahara would like to have a word with you about that.

  • Diane Merriam||

    Just because something is legal doesn't mean you can't be legally harassed for doing it ... as Backpage finally gave in to even though it's won every case that's been brought against it. Legal fights, even when you're in the right, cost money - a lot of money.

  • Quixote||

    How courageous! So it turns out even "free speech" is about profit margins! Perhaps not so surprising for the American society we see unfolding every day, from one obscenity to the next.

  • Quixote||

    P.s. and it is, of course, regrettable that Mr. Bahara dropped (apparently) his important investigation into the unpresidented abuses of certain rabble-rousers availing themselves of "free speech" in these parts.

  • Suicidy||

    You should just PM Warty then.

  • Swiss Servator||

    and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content.

    Unsavory?!

    *starts woodchipper*

  • UnCivilServant||

    Switzy, you know our comments lack flavor, and thus are not savory.

  • Jimbo||

    I thought our comments lacked class, but were very flavorful.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    No, our comments are not savory, because they are so sweet.

  • Michael Price||

    Are you trying to say that there's no taste here?

  • Brochetta's magic (((pants)))||

    Props to ENB for throwing "fellate" into the article.

  • Elizabeth Nolan Brown||

    oh good, I was worried that was too much ;)

  • MikeT1986||

    From you? never.

  • John Titor||

    Too much? For the Reason commentariat? As long as you can change a tire we're good.

  • MikeT1986||

    Say no more, say no more.

  • Pompey: Ho Class Mothersmucker||

    Hush, sweet prince. *puts index finger across pursed lips and aspirates a tempered shoosh*

  • prolefeed||

    I didn't even notice the fellate thing until it was pointed out.

    But then, my GF's nicknames for me are "pervert" and "naked boy".

  • Michael Price||

    "As long as you can change a tire we're good."
    Another one of those coded adult ads.

  • Brochetta's magic (((pants)))||

    Also, going to Backpage.com, it seems that they just have a 'censored' message that appears under each adult section. My guess is that they are just using it to make a point and will reinstate them. Drunken degenerates everywhere who are drunk and alone at last call or looking for an Asian massage parlor can only hope

  • John C. Randolph||

    I give it about a day before all the hooker's ads are just shifted to the "dating" section. If the feds stomp that out, then they'll flood match.com, plentyOfFish.com, and all the other dating sites.

    -jcr

  • Jimbo||

    You seem to know a lot of sites, citizen. Please come in for an interview.

  • DexMed||

    The shift has already started - all of the backpage escorts are on ava.fm now.

  • Libertymike||

    "Sadly these hammer-handed attempts actually hurt most the people" like me who now are forced to find a new outlet to advertise my BFE services.

  • John C. Randolph||

    Kamala Harris has shut down her competition.

    -jcr

  • The Fusionist||

    "Congressional hearings—the latest of which will take place today, January 10, before the U.S. Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations"

    You need to specify which committee that's a subcommittee *of.*

    Never mind, I'll look it up - It's the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

    You may have heard of this committee under its previous name, the Committee on Government Operations.

    Does the phrase "Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations" ring any bells? It was Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee where he carried out his famous hearings - I'm surprised that ENB didn't flag that, since it would bolster her argument of McCarthyist harassment. Just trying to be helpful.

  • juris imprudent||

    We had to destroy the First Amdt to save, the, er something...

  • Elizabeth Nolan Brown||

    Didn't know that. Thanks

  • John Titor||

    You have to be a very special kind of stupid to post ads for underage prostitutes. I mean, just sell them to Epstein and be done with it.

  • ||

    My orphan slaves are guaranteed 100% pure.

  • Suicidy||

    Do you get more for them if they are trained monocle polishers?

  • Michael Price||

    Obviously that comes standard, it's a classy operation he's running.

  • Rich||

    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.

    Obviously the solution is: "These statements have not been evaluated by Backpage. These services are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any problem."

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Posner described such tactics as 'a formula for permitting unauthorized, unregulated, foolproof, lawless government coercion.'

    So, acting like the government?

    Boom.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Would if there was matching luggage.

  • Jimbo||

    You are soooo picky!

  • SparktheRevolt||

    Claire Mccaskill just said on MSNBC "[Backpage] made millions upon millions selling children for sex".

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Hundreds of gazillions!

  • pan fried wylie||

    pinky -> corner of mouth

  • jack sprat||

    Brazillians!

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    When I was younger I had a framed 100 Brazilian Real in my house so I could say I had a hundred Brazilian dollars and that I was a brazillianaire.

    Long story short, no one likes me now.

  • Raston Bot||

    in Claire McCaskill's defense.. she is dumb as shit.

  • Robert||

    So now instead of sexual services ads being segregated into a section people can avoid if they want to, they have to be mixed in w general family-friendly listings.

  • Jimbo||

    Bring the whole family in for a massage! Happy Endings for everyone!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Didn't Backpage just win at the Supreme Court which refused to take the government's appeal of their 230 win? I wonder if that's related to their announcement.

  • Rasilio||

    " and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content."

    Um, really? A certain woodchipper incident would seem to indicate your protections are not so secure as you would think. I mean really you think criminal charges are the only way they can go after you and shut you down?

    Also Sugarfree has a sad that you find his posts unsavory

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Um, really? Without 230 it would have been worse.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Well his posts certainly aren't sweet.

  • Think It Through||

    Hammer-handed? Is that a variation on a theme, kind of like Edward Scissorhands? I always used ham-handed....like you have no fingers so you're clumsy as hell.

  • Think It Through||

    And, uh....who's the girl in the pic? Asking for an age-appropriate friend.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Eventually the NYT et al will move into the adult ad space because it will subsidize their shitty news operations.

  • DesigNate||

    The last time my office got a hardcopy yellow pages*, there were plenty of ads for escorts and massage parlors in their respective sections.

    *probably early 2000's

  • Conchfritters||

    No one believes more firmly than Kamala Harris that all animals are equal. sHe would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

  • IBEW47||

    they were running ads for kids as young as 12 - WTH is the mater with you?

  • Suicidy||

    Then the cops should go bust the people running the ad and rescue the girl. Not stop Backpage from all adult ads.

  • DesigNate||

    Yeah sure they were.

    And how the hell do you know that you sick fuck?

  • Suicidy||

    Now, now.......let's be reasonable. He's probably already occupied with his niece or stepdaughter to use Backpage.

  • Michael Price||

    Well yes but he might as well make a few extra bucks as well.

  • Michael Price||

    Well yes but he might as well make a few extra bucks as well.

  • David Emami||

    "Hammer-handed." I'm going to have to remember that one.

  • Cathy Franck||

    Damn. Now my husband will have to find another way to buy his whores.

  • Enemy of the State||

    "...and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content."

    Who the fuck's been posting unsavory content??? I'll piss in that bastard's mouth and post the proof here!

  • Michael Price||

    "and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content."
    When the chips are down we rely on section 230.

  • Michael Price||

    "and stops the feds from coming after Reason.com when the comments section contains unsavory content."
    When the chips are down we rely on section 230.

  • Old Monkey||

    I find it strange that sex workers can't get licenses and set up shop with a joint receptionist for booking. States can have a few rules, requiring an ID card for the sex worker, and require proper ID from clients to be checked before services scheduled. Lots can be done to ensure a decent living and safety of everyone with minimum intrusion

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