Online classified website Backpage.com takes down adult section amid government pressure
One of the world’s largest classified ad websites closed its adult ads section in the U.S.
Backpage.com has been involved in its share of controversies, with the website at the center of human sex trafficking allegations. The company announced the closure effective Monday after the U.S. Senate released a report accusing it of being a haven for criminal activity.
The site’s founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and the site’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, were scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ subcommittee on investigations.
The Senate panel’s report accused Backpage of attempting to hide evidence of criminal activity by editing its adult ads to remove references to sex trafficking. The report, which cited internal documents, showed 70 to 80 percent of ads were modified to conceal links to prostitution and child sex trafficking, according to the Associated Press.
In Indiana, Backpage has been named among websites contributing to sex trafficking. The Attorney General’s Office said a study conducted in 2014 showed there were 90,000 ads for adult services on the website. As of 2016, there were 380,000 ads on the website, with many of them offering illegal services.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the business saw explosive growth from 2008 to 2014, going from $5.3 million in gross revenue to $135 million.
Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) led the bipartisan investigation in Backpage’s operations. In a statement, they said Backpage had been “far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew.”
While the adult section’s menu read “censored” Monday in the U.S., classified sections for cars, real estate, childcare and other areas remained active.
Backpage accused the government of going on a “witch hunt” to stifle free speech and said taking the adult section down wouldn’t have much of an impact on human trafficking.
“Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” Lacey and Larkin said in a joint 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 future.”
They argued that while some users of the site may engage in criminal behavior, the website merely hosts content on the site and is protected under the Communications Decency Act.
A federal court agreed, ruling in favor of Backpage and saying federal shield laws protected it from liability after three sex trafficking victims filed a lawsuit accusing the website of promoting the exploitation of children. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in that case, meaning the ruling favoring Backpage will stand.