Backpage: Legacy of Shame

On the day SESTA (the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) was introduced, the Internet Association—an industry consortium that represents Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and more than three dozen other tech companies—released a statement criticizing the bill that would effectively end Lacey and Larkin’s dream of the Backpage sex trafficking empire, calling it “overly broad.”

While it was of vital important to pursue “rogue operators like Backpage.com,” the association said, SESTA was more butcher knife than scalpel; it would create “a new wave of frivolous and unpredictable actions against legitimate companies.”

But Big Tech and its allies were no longer really in a position to complain. On Halloween, Congress hauled in executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Legislators wanted to know why the platforms had failed to stem the tide of fake news and misinformation in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, why they’d sold political ad space to Russian nationals, why they were supposedly muzzling conservative voices. Pundits opined that the web was all grown up now; many questioned whether there even were legitimate purposes for which platforms might seek protection using the loophole Backpage had for years successfully hidden behind (Section 230) at all.

In a sudden twist, however, several days after the Capitol Hill perp walk, the Internet Association suddenly reversed course. It came out in favor of a lightly modified version of SESTA, which by now had been combined with an equally clumsily named House bill, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA. It was hard not to see the association’s move as a cynical act of political pandering.

Indeed, as Winston Churchill once said, “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”

By the spring of 2018, things had gotten even worse for Big Tech. That March, news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, seeming to confirm the public’s worst suspicions. Four days later, Congress passed FOSTA-SESTA. The law amends Section 230 to allow states and civil plaintiffs to go after websites that “promote and facilitate prostitution” or “knowingly benefit from participation in a venture that engages in sex trafficking.” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of the original authors of Section 230 and a longtime tech industry ally, warned that further measures could be in the offing if: “technology companies do not wake up to their responsibilities … to better protect the public.”

Above all, this was the lesson the horrifying legacy of Backpage gave to the Internet. For all Tony Ortega’s bluster about ‘protected speech’ and ‘First Amendment freedoms in his many failed attempts to sway public opinion in Backpage’s favor— real change begins, not with lies and propaganda, but when we stand up to evil where we see it.

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