It didn’t take long after the passage of the omnibus spending bill for the Department of Justice to take action after a longtime target in its sex-trafficking crackdown. The spending bill contained a relatively obscure rider that amended Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, and just days after its passage, the FBI seized control of the notorious website Backpage.com and several affiliates sites. Other competitors, such as Craigslist, had already shut down their classified sex ads in anticipation of the DoJ’s bolstered legal authority to act.
Indictments dropped today on seven executives of Backpage for facilitation of prostitution, including its two founders:
The founders of Backpage.com and five others at the classified site have been indicted on federal charges in what authorities say was a scheme to facilitate prostitution by running ads for sexual services and hiding their revenues.
An indictment unsealed Monday alleges that Backpage.com on some occasions had helped customers edit their ads so they would stay within legal limits while still encouraging commercial sex.
Website founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin are charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
It’s not the first time in this particular rodeo for Backpage execs. Eighteen months ago, California and Texas indicted them on similar charges. However, no one seized the websites at that time, and those cases have not yet been adjudicated. Section 230 was one of the pertinent issues at the time, but the case also raised questions about an intrusion on speech and publication, issues that may come up once again when the defendants make their case in federal court.
They may still have some luck with those arguments, but perhaps not so much on the money laundering charges:
The federal investigation in Phoenix was first disclosed by Backpage in a court filing in February 2017. Phoenix is where Backpage was created, by Lacey and Larkin as owners of the New Times alternative weekly newspaper chain, and federal officials said that is where the company’s American bank accounts are located, although they alleged that money was funneled through banks in Iceland, Hungary, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands. …
The indictments also discuss dozens of counts dealing with money laundering, which the officials said was an effort to keep the money from being traced. Since launching in 2004, Backpage has made “approximately $500 million dollars in prostitution-related revenue,” the Arizona official said. “The defendants took various steps to launder the money.” That included routing the money through seemingly unrelated businesses, wiring it through other countries and converting it in and out of “bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency,” the official said.
And even the free-speech argument might have some holes in it:
[T]he Senate subcommittee on investigations launched a probe into Backpage, and found that Backpage employees were editing prostitution ads to delete references to underage girls, while still allowing the ads to be posted.
In addition, The Washington Post found that Backpage had hired a contractor in the Philippines to solicit ads from prostitutes advertising on other websites, creating ready-made ads for them on Backpage, though Backpage had said it was not involved in creating content.
This came up in the earlier indictments, too. Backpage execs insisted that they had no role in creating or editing the content of the ads, which they said relieved them of liability. If prosecutors prove Backpage employees were recruiting prostitutes for ads and rewriting ads to remove references to the fact that the girls were underage, I suspect that courts and juries will not view free speech and laissez-faire arguments with much sympathy.
The effort to amend Section 230 in the omnibus bill was bipartisan and brought together people across the political spectrum. Not everyone was happy about it, though. The extreme-feminist group Womens March called the shutdown of Backpage an “absolute crisis for sex workers” this weekend, prompting an avalanche of criticism:
. The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info. https://t.co/S3Orx3aM8Z
— Women's March (@womensmarch) April 7, 2018
Meghan Murphy, editor of Feminist Current, was perturbed, telling Women’s March on Twitter: “How dare you claim to stand for women.”
Likewise, Marian Hatcher, who was once a victim of trafficking and is presently the senior project manager and human trafficking coordinator at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, was repulsed. Hatcher was actively involved in the advocacy for the anti-sex trafficking bill known as FOSTA-SESTA that Congress recently approved and President Trump is expected to sign this week.
“Utter NONSENSE!!!” Hatcher said, adding, “Why does @womensmarch continue to perpetuate lies!!! SURVIVORS and CURRENT Victims of Prostitution and trafficking are statistically the majority. Patriarchy and $$ has brainwashed the minority’s accepting violence against women (mostly of color) ITS NOT SAFE!!”
Actor Rosanna Arquette responded shortly afterward (via Twitchy):
There are always pimps involved ..billions made ..its called sex slavery.
— Rosanna Arquette (@RoArquette) April 7, 2018
That’s what prosecutors will allege, and what juries will have to sort out. Its shutdown might make life tougher for sex “workers,” but Backpage’s operation seems to have also made life a lot easier for traffickers and very difficult for their victims.