Crusaders against the sexual exploitation of children are celebrating a titanic victory with the shutdown of the leading international electronic tool for the human trafficking industry. Federal authorities have seized the servers of the despicable website Backpage.com, which has been used as an online portal by human trafficking enterprises to market the “sexual services” of victims of the child sex trade.
The Backpage site was seized as part of a collaborative multi-agency enforcement action joined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service, and the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the U.S. Justice Department. In addition, a federal grand jury in Arizona has indicted seven officers and employees of Backpage.com on 93 criminal counts. Among those charged are the website’s founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin. The Backpage executives are accused, among other charges, of facilitating prostitution and laundering the corporation’s income in foreign banks.
The grand jury indictment states that executives at Backpage advertised “escort services” while knowing that the overwhelming majority of those ads involved solicitation for prostitution. “Many of the ads published on Backpage depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking,” the indictment reads.
The grand jury alleges that the company’s policy was to delete words in classified ads placed on their site which would make clear that the child was a minor and revise the ads to disguise the fact that the personal ad involved child prostitution. The ads would nonetheless be edited to include code words to imply that the “escort” was an underage girl.
The indictment specifically cites the crimes committed against 17 alleged victims. In one case, a teenager was forced to perform sex acts at gunpoint, was then gang-raped, and choked until she had seizures. The stories of other victims were even more sickening and lethal, and too revolting to even recount.
The “personal ads” marketplace operated by Backpage has been extremely lucrative. The Justice Department claims that the company earned more than $500 million in prostitution-related classified advertising since it established its online presence in 2004. “Virtually every dollar flowing into Backpage’s coffers represents the proceeds of illegal activity,” the indictment read.
A major break in the cybercrimes campaign against Backpage occurred when company CEO Carl Ferrerdecided to cooperate with federal investigators. Ferrer acknowledged that Backpage had a “companywide culture of concealing…the true nature of the services being offered…to create a veneer of [legal] deniability.”
For years companies like Backpage.com have escaped criminal culpability for their complicity in the child sex trade because of a provision in a federal law known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). That section of the federal statute provides legal immunity for companies which host online platforms when items posted include content that they did not create or originate.
That impenetrable legal shield was punctured in the last month. After years of doing battle with the web-based technology industry, Congress finally succeeded in passing legislation amending the CDA. The bill finally enacted was called the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which was sponsored by Congresswoman Ann Wagner of St. Louis County, who has been a relentless leader of anti-human trafficking forces in our nation’s Capitol. FOSTA makes it a federal crime to own, manage, or operate an interactive computer service with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person. The legislation also empowers victims of human trafficking websites to pursue civil damages and restitution from enterprises which are facilitators of the child sex industry.
President Donald Trump signed FOSTA into law last week. In signing the bill, Trump stated: “Human trafficking is a modern form of the oldest and most barbaric type of exploitation. It has no place in our world.” As he put his pen to the bill, Trump turned to victims present at the ceremony in the Oval Office and said, “I’m signing this bill in your honor. You have endured what no person on earth should have to endure.”
Missouri U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill also played a key role in the Congressional showdown with Backpage.com and as a vocal advocate for children enslaved by agents of human trafficking. McCaskill was a leading figure on a Senate investigate committee that unmasked many of the insidious business practices of the Backpage.com empire. FOSTA has already had an impact on other classified advertising websites. The popular but highly sleazy website Craigslist has now removed their personals section in response to the new law. Reddit has revised its content policy prohibiting advertising for “paid services involving physical sexual contact.” Other websites are re-examining their operating practices. Leaders of the fight against human trafficking are exultant over the recent developments. “For years, Backpage.com has been a major hub of sex trafficking, the place where some of our nations’ most vulnerable women and children have been bought and sold,” says Lauren Hersh, national director of World Without Exploitation. “The closure of Backpage removes one of the most prolific online platforms of sexual exploitation. It is high time to hold websites accountable for the harm they knowingly cause by facilitating sexual bondage of children.”