Backpage shuts down adult section, citing gov’t pressure, unlawful ‘censorship’ campaign

January 10, 2017 in News

By Tribune News Service

Backpage.com announced Monday that it has shut down the website's adult classified ads in response to government pressure. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Backpage.com announced Monday that it has shut down the website’s adult classified ads in response to government pressure. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Backpage.com, one of the world’s largest classified ad websites and a frequent target in the political battle against sex trafficking, closed its adult ads section Monday in the United States, citing years of pressure by government officials.

The extraordinary move came shortly after the release of a U.S. Senate report that accused Backpage of hiding criminal activity by deleting terms from ads that indicated sex trafficking or prostitution.

Backpage’s founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and the site’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, were expected to testify Tuesday before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which issued the critical report.

 The Senate committee’s inquiry found evidence that Backpage knowingly facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking, and that despite public claims to the contrary, the website remains owned by Larkin and Lacey through a network of shell companies.

Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who led the bipartisan Senate investigation into the website, said Backpage’s move to shutter its adult ads attested to the damning evidence uncovered by their inquiry.

“We reported the evidence that Backpage has been far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew,” they said in a statement.

“Backpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site. That’s not ‘censorship’ _ it’s validation of our findings.”

By late Monday, visitors to Backpage saw “censored” tags in a red font under the adult section’s menu of escorts, body rubs and strippers. The site featured full statements from the company as well as supporters who view government efforts to shutter Backpage as unlawful attempts to stifle free speech.

“Like the decision by Craigslist to remove its adult category in 2010, this announcement is the culmination of years of effort by government at various levels to exert pressure on Backpage.com and to make it too costly to continue,” Backpage said.

The site has long positioned itself as a champion of online speech freedoms and has relied on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a federal statute that immunizes website operators from the content of users’ ads.

A Sacramento County, Calif., judge cited the law in December when he tossed out pimping charges filed against Lacey, Larkin and Ferrer by former California Attorney General. Kamala Harris.

In a separate statement, Lacey and Larkin congratulated their efforts to augment law that protects online speech and privacy rights, and recounted their years of legal battles, including the recent prosecution attempt by Harris.

The men said they intend to sue Harris, who has since been elected to the Senate, for bringing the case despite knowing it “had no basis in law.”

Lacey and Larkin _ the former owners of Phoenix New Times and the Village Voice _ also said they sold their ownership interest in Backpage two years ago, contradicting the Senate report.

“Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” the men said in their statement.

“But the shutdown of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the 1st Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future.”

Matt Hamilton, The Los Angeles Times