Backpage Vs Feds: An Inside Glimpse Part II

As readers familiar with the sordid saga of Tony Ortega’s “Free Speech Champions” might recall from our earlier reporting, Backpage, the platform that brought the federal government down on Michael Lacey and James Larkin’s heads, itself wasn’t much to look at. It was little more than a bare-bones interface wrapped in knock-off Facebook blue. From the beginning it was similar to Craigslist in both form and function. Even its name was something of a callback to the old days of print publishing, when classified ads (especially racier ads for topless bars, escort services, and other sexually oriented businesses) filled the final pages of alt-weeklies. This was the key to providing the lion share of their revenue. Visitors to the site were greeted with several columns of links, which directed them to listings for various metropolitan areas around the country. From there, they could reply to ads or write their own.

Many of the ads—for auto parts, part-time gigs, vacation rentals, and so on—were free to publish. But the lewd stuff, listed in their “adult section”, cost money. For as little as $2 a day, users could post in such categories as “body rubs” and “dom & fetish.” The site’s terms of use prohibited any content that could be considered “unlawful,” “harmful,” or “obscene.” To gain access to the adult section, all users had to do was click a link alleging they were 18 or older. Once inside, they saw an endless scroll of titles, some laden with innuendo (“Cum lay your hotdog on my bun for memorial day”), others more explicit (“Three holes anything goes $90”).

As in the print days, it was precisely these adult ads which reigned supreme.

By 2011 they accounted for 15 percent of Backpage’s listings but generated more than a whopping 90 percent of its revenue. When the Feds finally pulled the plug on the site, it was operating in 97 countries and was valued at more than half a billion dollars.

People were calling it the Google of commercial sex trafficking ads, a platform that dominated its market as thoroughly as Facebook dominated social networking or Amazon did online retail.

The government indictment that triggered Lacey and Larkin’s arrests, United States v. Lacey, et al., includes 17 “victim summaries”, many of which we have covered in the past. They were stories of women who were sexually exploited in a naked cash grab through Backpage

Victim 5 first appeared in an ad on the platform when she was 14; her “customers” made her “perform sexual acts at gunpoint, choked her to the point of having seizures, and gang-raped her.”

Victim 6 was stabbed to death.

Victim 8 was trafficked by her own uncle and his friends, who advertised her as “fetish friendly.”

The indictment accuses Backpage of catering explicitly to online sexual predators. The end result was Backpage directly helping pimps better reach their target audiences.

In the years before their arrest, Lacey and Larkin had successfully beat back charges like these in court. Hiding, in the way Tony Ortega brazenly did, behind the First Amendment. Like Ortega, they also exploited loop holes Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. These last two were Congress’ great gift to the sleaziest operators on the internet.

Passed in 1996, Section 230 largely immunized online platforms from liability for the user-generated content they hosted. They were free to regulate offending material as platforms owners themselves saw fit, without fear of prosecution by state or local authorities. The loop hole was this: as long as they didn’t create it themselves they were in the clear.

America’s tech behemoths like Twitter to Facebook have often invoked Section 230 in court, defending their inaction in stopping Russian propaganda or allowing hate speech to spread like wild fire.

For a while, Lacey and Larkin’s strategy seemed to be working: They’d won case after case, with the support of Big Tech and civil libertarians alike. But by the time the Feds descended on Paradise Valley that morning in the spring of 2018, the tide had turned. Many of their friends and allies had fled, spooked in part by too much bad press. The tech industry, which faced withering scrutiny over its role in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, had thrown them under the bus. Their top lieutenant had flipped. And Congress had used them as an excuse to finally accomplish what it had been trying to do for more than 20 years—tear a hole in Section 230.

This crucial change, as we will see tomorrow, was the nail in Backpage’s coffin.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.