The Jig Is Up

On January 8, 2017, the Senate subcommittee released its final report, titled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.” It pushed the theory that Lacey, Larkin, Ferrer, and their employees had invalidated their liability protections under Section 230: Rather than removing illegal and obscene content, the Senate clearly established that Backpage had helped develop it, using manipulative moderation practices to “sanitize the content” and conceal it from the eyes of the law—all in the name of earning a few extra dollars. This, the subcommittee correctly deduced, put Backpage in the position of a content creator, not a mere content host.

It wasn’t until the very night the Senate report was released, that Backpage understood the jig was up and finally, begrudgingly, shut down its adult section.

It was, of course, far too late to stave off what was coming. The next morning, Lacey, Larkin, Ferrer, and two other Backpage executives appeared in Room 342 of the Senate’s Dirksen Building for a grilling by Portman and his colleagues. It was a carefully choreographed bit of political theater. The Backpage witnesses took the Fifth, as senators knew they must; thanks to a pending case in California, they had no choice. Portman denounced them for refusing to “come clean.”

Within six months of the hearing, at least eight new civil lawsuits were filed against Backpage. The Section 230 defense now worked only rarely, as courts increasingly read in exceptions designed to close the infamous loophole Lacey and Larkin had for so long been exploiting.

The site’s operators began preparing for a full-court press by the Feds. Backpage handed out fat legal retainers, as key employees lawyered up. Lacey and Larkin started segregating cash; funds from the sale of Backpage went into one set of accounts, while proceeds from the newspaper sale went into another. It was during this time that Ferrer bought a brand-new Texas McMansion, cowardly putting it in his wife’s name, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovations knowing the authorities would soon freeze his accounts.

In public, Lacey and Larkin tried in vain to shrug off the Senate’s report. “We didn’t go out and try to disprove it,” noted one attorney who worked on the matter and understood the severity of the evidence against his clients, adding: “To try to rebut 50 pages of allegations in the press? That’s fighting a losing battle.”

They tried claiming it was a ‘hit piece’ intended to damage their reputation. But the damage had long been done, inflicted by their own hand through callous indifference to human suffering and personal greed.

In August of that same year, Portman launched another attack against Backpage. This time with the bipartisan group of 20 senators, including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, he introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA..

The bill’s key features, as Portman laid out: removing Section 230’s “unintended liability protections for websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking” and “allowing state and local law enforcement to prosecute” those sites.

Just as J. James Exon, the sponsor of the Communications Decency Act, had done two decades earlier, the senators were quick to allay concerns about constitutional overreach. Portman described SESTA as “narrowly crafted”; Blumenthal called it “narrowly tailored.”

Call it what you will, it was to be the end of Backpage’s global child-sex trafficking empire. And couldn’t have come soon enough. However, why was Tony Ortega, Backpage apologist, was left out of this investigation?

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