Backpage: “Hot Water”

Backpage was already getting into hot water. A girl in Missouri had sued the site in mid-September of 2009, alleging that she’d been pimped out at the age of 14 and that Backpage had willfully “failed to investigate for fear of what it would learn.” In the official police report she explained that the site’s operators “had a strong suspicion” she was underage. Ultimately, a federal magistrate dismissed her case. The situation was tragic, the judge said, but Backpage was protected under Section 230. If the girl wanted justice, she would need to sue her pimp he told her.

On October 18, Backpage announced on its blog that it had retained Hemanshu Nigam, a former federal prosecutor who specialized in sex crimes and child abuse, to develop a “holistic” safety program.

Nigam sat on the board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and had done similar work for Myspace. In the months that followed, Nigam and his new clients met repeatedly with representatives from anti-trafficking organizations. They proposed changes to Backpage’s site architecture, moderation practices, and content policies.

Backpage moderators, were warned they should be on the lookout for “ads written from masculine perspective,” particularly if they employed the euphemism “new in town,” which “is often used by pimps who shuttle children to locations where they do not know anyone and cannot get help.”

Backpage largely ignored these recommended changes.

By late January 2011, Backpage had implemented only a very few: It had banned photographs with nudity, drawn up a list of “inappropriate terms” that might alert prosecutors to the possibility of illegality.

Carl Ferrer, meanwhile, kept close tabs on the authorities by giving the appearance of entering into an agreement with them, promising to ’self police’.

Lacey and Larkin claim they were willing to help crack down on the exploitation of children. But soon they began to complain that the ‘demands’ being made of them seemed increasingly unfavorable to their bottom line.

Sex trafficking, by their narrow definition, was commercial sex involving the coerced or anyone under 18. In other words, the sale of exploited women was, according to their sick thinking, completely acceptable provided they were old enough to be high school seniors.

Though they shut their eyes to the many charges of child sex trafficking – pretending they were of no concern – they fiercely defended the line when it came to their sleazy prostitution racket. Their rationale was as twisted as their ambitions: they claimed that while they understood prostitution was not legal, laws at the federal level had yet to formally criminalize selling vulnerable and exploited women for sex nationwide.

This, they believed, was their new loophole.

In March 2011, Lacey and Larkin flew to Virginia to meet with Ernie Allen, mentioned in our previous story, who ran the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

After the meeting Allen would write: “To say that the meeting did not go well is an understatement.”

Allen would go on to detail how, throughout the full hour of their meeting, he and Lacey “were still screaming at each other.”

Allen demanded that Backpage do more to combat prostitution. Larkin said the site would enforce its own “news paper standard” but refused to give up the prostitution-based cash cow of Backpage’s classified sex ads — to which Allen reported Lacey added: “We are not Craigslist, and we aren’t going to succumb to pressure.”

It was an ugly exchange that would foreshadow the ill-will and bad faith of a publishing duo bent on pursuing their sex trafficking empire at all costs, including the unleashing of their media attack dog, Tony Ortega.

A contemporaneous Justice Department memo records the official end the meeting this way: “Allen responded that ‘At least you know what business you are in.’ ”

Indeed, it is the hope of all of us here at the blog that the world will also know the business Backpage was in and see it for what it truly is.

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