Federal authorities have seized and shut down Backpage.com, a website that specialized in sex-related classified ads, and then charged several of the site’s owners with sex trafficking, reports say.
The FBI shut down the website on Friday, claiming that the site was used to sell sex and sexually exploit children and other vulnerable people. A message left where Backpage used to appear lists the U.S. Attorney’s offices for Arizona, California, and Texas as participating agencies in the action.
Information was hard to come by, as some of the agencies involved said the case is sealed, chocking off information to the press. But Sen. Heidi Heitkamp celebrated the action, saying, “Today, Backpage was shut down. It’s a huge step. Now, no child will be sold for sex through this website.”
Heitkamp recently rejoiced in the passing of a bill meant to hold websites like Backpage.com “accountable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking online and to give greater legal protections to trafficking victims.” The bill passed the Senate in an overwhelming 97-2 vote this week and will now head to President Trump’s desk for him to sign into law.
Opponents of sex trafficking also celebrated the bill, according to Reuters.
“Shutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade, at least in the short term,” Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, an international anti-slavery group, told the media.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently testified before Congress that nearly three-quarters of the cases it has reviewed are linked to ads on Backpage. Authorities in California also added that 90 percent of the site’s income was derived from so-called “adult ads.”
Backpage brought its owners $135 million in revenue in 2014 alone, according to the New York Times.
The website’s chief executive, Carl Ferrer, was arrested at the company’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas, and charged with sexual exploitation and pimping charges. Another principal in the company, Michael Lacey, was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, and charged with sex trafficking, USA Today reported. Lacey’s 93-count indictment also remained sealed.
However, supporters of the site believe the government has struck a blow against freedom of speech, and Morgan M. Page, a writer on gender issues, says now, sex workers’ lives are in danger.
“It is obvious to anyone who bothers to listen to sex workers that the seizing of backpage will not end the sex trade, but only serve to make it more dangerous,” Page tweeted. “SESTA/FOSTA is putting sex workers’ lives in jeopardy”:
It is obvious to anyone who bothers to listen to sex workers that the seizing of backpage will not end the sex trade, but only serve to make it more dangerous. SESTA/FOSTA is putting sex workers' lives in jeopardy.
— Morgan M Page (@morganmpage) April 6, 2018
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.