Backpage vs Feds: An Inside Glimpse “An Opportunity For Us” Part V

The Communications Decency Act was a law conceived, as the name suggests, to rid the web of vice.

The new act was proposed in 1995 by Senator J. James Exon, a Nebraska Democrat who’d watched with growing alarm as “the worst, most vile, most perverse pornography” spread online. He was particularly concerned about what all this obscenity might do to America’s children.

Although Exon repeatedly described the legislation as “streamlined,” the Department of Justice warned that its indecency provisions were unconstitutionally broad. Within a year and a half of the CDA’s passage, the Supreme Court agreed and struck those provisions down.

The Act’s notorious ‘Section 230’, however, survived. It offered a safe harbor to some of the same sites that Exon had hoped to bring down. The information superhighway began to look more perilous than ever. And Backpage was more than ready to take advantage of this loophole in the system.

In 2001 two academics at the University of Pennsylvania published a widely cited study in which they estimated that some 326,000 children were “at risk of commercial sexual exploitation.” They asserted that: “…Online sexual victimization of American children appears to have reached epidemic proportions.”

By 2008, a new coalition of would-be regulators had emerged, led by the National Association of Attorneys General and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit funded in part by the US government. Together, both behind the scenes and in the press, the two groups began pushing some of the internet’s major players to strengthen their safety protocols.

In response, Myspace, the web’s largest social media platform at the time, kicked 90,000 convicted sex offenders off its site. Facebook took steps to prevent minors from sharing personal information with strangers. Craigslist started requiring that anyone who posted an ad in its Erotic Services section provide a verified phone number and pay by credit card. It also hired attorneys to moderate ads.

Backpage paid lip service to these reforms, even as it acted to further obscure its unflagging interest in maximizing profits from sex trafficking ads.

For some officials, though, these changes weren’t enough. In early 2009, Thomas Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, sued Craigslist for facilitating prostitution, saying: “Missing children, runaways, abused women, and women trafficked in from foreign countries are routinely forced to have sex with strangers because they’re being pimped on Craigslist… I could make arrests off Craigslist 24 hours a day, but to what end?”

That same spring, tabloids across the country were awash in headlines about the “Craigslist killer,” a young man in Boston who’d responded to a massage ad on the site, then murdered the woman who posted it.

A federal judge in Chicago quickly tossed Dart’s case, citing Section 230. But Craigslist eventually surrendered anyway. On the night of September 3, 2010, it quietly covered its Adult Services section with the word censored. Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, saw this as a necessary step. “Some of this problem will migrate to other areas,” he said, “but frankly, that’s progress.”

Allen’s prediction would prove to be right. In the wake of Craigslist’s capitulation, the sex trade did indeed shift to other sites. And there were many to choose from—myRedBook, Naughty Reviews, Cityvibe, Rentboy—but far and away, Backpage became the chief beneficiary.

James Larkin sent an email advising his employees to expect “a deluge” of adult ads and reminding them that, “like it or not” sex trafficking ads “are in our DNA.”

Michael Lacey claims he remained focused solely on the editorial side—though he had “no problem” seeing the ads “take off like they did.” Carl Ferrer, meanwhile, seemed only too happy to inherit Craigslist’s share of the adult market, even if that meant taking its place in the crosshairs.

Indeed, in one email Ferrer would come dangerously close to giving away the game by bluntly admitting in writing exactly how Backpage had always understood the raging sex trafficking epidemic online: “It is an opportunity for us.” And Tony Ortega was the Chief Propagandist for Backpage.

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