Washington Post - Morning Mix: Backpage.com shuts down adult services ads after relentless pressure from authorities

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Jan 12 17 5:16 PM

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Backpage.com shuts down

adult services ads a er

relentless pressure from


By Derek Hawkins January 10

Fighting accusations from members of Congress that it facilitated child sex trafficking, the classified advertising site

Backpage.com abruptly closed its adult advertising section in the United States on Monday, saying years of government

pressure left it no choice but to shutter its most popular and lucrative feature.

The decision came shortly after a Senate panel released a report alleging Backpage concealed criminal activity by removing

words from ads that would have exposed child sex trafficking and prostitution. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on

Investigations is scheduled to hold a hearing on the report Tuesday morning. Backpage’s founders and executives will appear

in the hearing but do not plan to testify, according to their attorneys.

In a related development Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lawsuit by three sextrafficking


who claimed Backpage promoted the sexual exploitation of minors.

Backpage said in a statement that scrutiny of the site by government officials has made it too costly to keep operating the adult

section. The company rejected the subcommittee’s findings, saying the decision was the result of “unconstitutional

government censorship.”

“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed,” Backpage said, “but new government tactics, including

pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to

remove the content in the United States.”

Backpage has been the target of multiple lawsuits and investigations in recent years focusing on its adult ads, and its founders

and executives are currently fighting moneylaundering

and pimping charges in California.

The ads for escorts, bodyrubs

and adult entertainment, many of them including revealing photos as part of the comeon,


an important source of revenue for Backpage, which operates like Craigslist, with users paying to advertise a range of goods

and services. Advocates say such advertisements have improved safety for sex workers by allowing them to negotiate services

online rather than in the streets. But the National Association of Attorneys General and other law enforcement officials have

argued that Backpage and sites like it provide an outlet for people who seek to sexually exploit minors.

Backpage launched in 2004 and expanded significantly six years later when Craigslist shut down its adult advertising section

under pressure from law enforcement and Congress. On Monday night, disclaimers appeared on Backpage’s adult section

reading “CENSORED” in red letters and “the government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”

The federal Communications Decency Act provides immunity to website operators that publish thirdparty

content online, but

multiple lawsuits have argued that the 1996 law does not protect Backpage because the site contributes to illegal activity

— claims Backpage has vigorously denied.

The Senate subcommittee raised similar concerns Monday. Its report alleged that Backpage knowingly hid child sex trafficking

and prostitution by deleting incriminating terms from its ads before publication. The report found that the company used a

feature that automatically scrubbed words such as “teenage,” “rape” and “young” from some ads, while manually removing

terms from others.

The subcommittee also alleged that Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey still own financial stakes in the

company, despite claiming that they sold their shares roughly two years ago.

The panel has been investigating Backpage since June 2015. Initially, the company refused to turn over subpoenaed

documents, but a federal court ordered the company to comply with the probe last summer.

Sens. Rob Portman (ROhio)

and Claire McCaskill (DMo.),

who spearheaded the investigation, said Backpage’s decision to

close the adult section showed that it was “complicit” in online sex trafficking.

“Backpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site,” the senators said in a statement. “That’s not

‘censorship’ — it’s validation of our findings.”

Larkin and Lacey are scheduled to appear at Tuesday’s hearing, along with Backpage’s chief executive, chief of operations and

general counsel. Several alleged “victims of Backpage’s practices” are also slated to appear, according to the subcommittee’s

site. In a letter to the subcommittee, attorneys for Backpage said Larkin, Lacey and the others do not plan to testify, and

compared the subcommittee’s probe to the anticommunist

crusades of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

In a separate statement, Larkin and Lacey cited Backpage’s list of legal battles, saying courts in multiple states have sided

with the site in litigation over its adult ads.

“Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” Larkin and Lacey said in a statement. “But the shutdown

of Backpage’s adult

classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the


Backpage contends that its adult section has become a resource for law enforcement agencies and says the closing of its adult

section will not reduce human trafficking. According to Backpage attorneys, local and federal authorities around the country

have turned to the site for help tracking down people who have “impermissibly sought to use the internet as a platform to

commit abhorrent crimes.” The site has long collaborated with law enforcement officers, the attorneys said, and has donated

to Children of the Night, an organization whose mission is to rescue children from prostitution.

Children of the Night Founder and President Lois Lee called the site a “critical investigative tool” that has helped authorities

arrest pimps and recover missing children.

“The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to

help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique,” Lee said in a statement. “It not only made law

enforcement’s job easier, it made them much more effective at rescuing kids and convicting pimps.”

Along with Lee’s remarks, Backpage offered two pages of what it said were testimonials from law enforcement agencies,

including the FBI, praising the site for assisting investigations. “I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy

target,” read one testimonial, attributed to the Denver Police Department. “I have told numerous people that Backpage is law

enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”

In October, authorities raided the Backpage’s headquarters in Dallas and arrested Chief Executive Carl Ferrer on charges of

pimping a minor and conspiracy, after an investigation by state attorneys general found that prostitution ads posted to the site

involved sextrafficking

victims. Authorities also charged Larkin and Lacey with conspiracy to commit pimping. At the time,

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris accused them of designing Backpage to be “the world’s top online brothel.”

A judge dismissed the charges in December, but Harris filed new charges shortly after, accusing the trio of money laundering

and conspiracy to commit pimping, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Attorneys for the men say the charges are baseless.

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.

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Jan 12 17 6:19 PM

Congratulations Anti-Trafficking Activists, You Just Put The People You “Care” About In Danger

Congratulations Anti-Trafficking Activists, You Just Put The People You “Care” About In Danger

Screenshot 2017-01-10 12.39.37

January is Human Trafficking awareness month, and in a not-so stunning turn of events the federal government– bolstered by the efforts of anti-trafficking activists– just ensured that a lot of people are about to be in danger.

In fact, these social justice advocates– well meaning, but many of whom don’t actually understand the dynamics of exploitation or even the systemic issues that increase human trafficking– just contributed to making trafficking a bigger problem than it already is. Beyond making trafficking a bigger problem, countless people (women, men, LGBTQ, including LGBTQ youth engaging in survival sex) were just put in danger, and food for untold scores of children was just taken off the table.

All by the people who supposedly “care” the most.

What I’m talking about is the long-waged war on the website backpage.com. From arresting the CEO for “pimping” charges that didn’t stick, they’ve now used well-meaning social influence and the strong arm of government to bully backpage into compliance with their demand: shut down the section of the website where people advertise for erotic services.

Backpage.com has now complied, and has now shut that section down. In what is being seen as a major victory for the exploited, is actually a major blow of defeat. It’s a cause for mourning, an invitation to mobilize in support of those in situations prone for exploitation, and it’s a moment to rebuke an entire movement for harming the very people they say they want to help.

Let me explain the harm caused by bullying Backpage into submission:

The vast majority of people working in the sex industry are doing so either out of choice or circumstance (the two most recent studies I’ve seen, one of which was presented at the International Human Trafficking Conference at the University of Toledo this past fall, where I gave a lecture on trafficking aftercare, puts the combined percentage of choice plus circumstance at or around 90-93% depending on the study, location, and other factors). Furthermore, the majority of those who were women in that category, are also working mothers, so we have more people to consider when we talk of “helping” than just what we see on the surface.

The third category is people who are being trafficked (forced), and everyone wants to help them. In fact, I know no one more committed to helping trafficking victims than those who are in the sex industry themselves.

Of those in the industry by choice or circumstance, places like backpage.com are a friend, not an enemy. It allows them to work in a safe location instead of on the streets. It allows them to filter out clients who are bad news. It allows them to do their job with a certain degree of safety. At the very least, it provides them the opportunity to make work-related decisions with more information.

What did the government and anti-trafficking advocates achieve by shutting it down?

Well, now instead of working from a position of increased safety, a position that allowed them to take necessary and good steps towards harm reduction, these individuals will now have to work from positions of decreased safety and increased harm. To make up lost wages, they’ll be forced to take on more clients, they’ll have less financial freedom to turn down clients they don’t want to meet with, and will likely have to reduce their fees. None of these outcomes are good.

Or maybe their client base just dries up, and now all you’ve done is ensure they can’t pay rent or feed their kids. Yea! What a victory! </sarcasm>

Oh, and not to mention the fact that now they’ll be in closer proximity to law enforcement– people they fear, not just because they’ll be criminalized, but because law enforcement is known to be one of the chief exploiters of street-based sex workers and trafficking victims. It’s a dirty little secret the anti-trafficking industry won’t talk openly about because so much funding hinges upon working with law enforcement, so people don’t dare to speak up outside of closed doors. But I think the reality was best summarized by a trafficking survivor who participated in my 4-year-long doctoral study on trafficking, when she said, “Every survivor I have ever known was more afraid of law enforcement than her own pimp.”

So, here’s the result, brought to you by the anti-trafficking industry themselves:

Countless people across the country who yesterday could pay rent and put food on the table with the help of a harm reduction tool (backpage.com), now have to choose between paying rent and feeding kids, or conducting business in environments where they are at far higher risk of abuse, violence, criminalization by law enforcement, being sexually assaulted or coerced by law enforcement, and— wait for it– at higher risk of becoming a trafficking victim!

The smaller percentage of individuals who are being forced into it? You know, the current trafficking victims everyone wants to help? (And that includes the majority of those who buy sex, by the way.) Well, this accomplished nothing for them, other than it will force their traffickers to push them deeper into the hidden shadows of society where it is now LESS LIKELY we will identify them, or be able to help them.

So, yeah. More people will be prone to becoming trafficking victims, and it will now be harder to find them. Sounds like an amazing victory for the exploited.

I like the way sex-worker/anti-trafficking advocate, Kate D’Adamo put it today:

“No one impacted by this is celebrating. No one. Not sex workers, not people in exploitative conditions, not law enforcement. No one who is affected is celebrating. If you see someone cheering this, you are looking at someone celebrating the vulnerability, violence and abuse of a community they are not a part of and probably to whom they offer nothing.”

So, congratulations, anti-trafficking industry. You just put the people you claim to “care” about in more danger.

Why? How? Well, it ultimately boils down to the fact that you say you want to “help” but you refuse to listen to the voices of sex workers, so that would make a nice start if you’re open to helping instead of causing more harm.

"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.

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