Last week the Department of Justice seized and shuttered Backpage.com. Ranked 485 in U.S. website traffic, the site was the second largest online classifieds website here, and was more popular than Sears or GEICO, with 5.6 million daily pageviews. All content on the website was removed and replaced with a single image indicating the host of federal agencies involved in its seizure:
Founders of the site Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, along with five others, have been charged by the federal government in a 93-count indictment, alleging they facilitated prostitution and engaged in money laundering. Backpage CEO Carl Ferrar was not charged in the indictment and is referred to throughout by the alias “C.F,” leading to speculation he is a cooperating witness in the case. Lacey and Larkin have previously stated they sold their interests in the site, but the indictment alleges they have still “retained significant control” over and ownership interests in the site.
Backpage and Craigslist have faced a number of legal issues before, due primarily to the charge that they operate as platforms facilitating the buying and selling of sex services. In January, four top executives at Backpage refused to testify before Congress, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights. The same day, the site eliminated its adult services sections, replacing all relevant links to an announcement proclaiming:
“The decision of Backpage.com today to remove its Adult section in the United States will no doubt be heralded as a victory by those seeking to shutter the site, but it should be understood for what it is: an accumulation of acts of government censorship using extra-legal tactics.”
Adult service ads did not, however, disappear; they migrated to other site categories like the dating section. As the New York Times reports:
For Tiffany, 18, the demise of Backpage’s adult listings has made things far more unpredictable — and dangerous, she said. The old ads allowed her to try to vet customers by contacting them before meetings, via phone or text message. With far fewer inquiries from the dating ads, she said, her first encounters with men now take place more often on the street as she gets into cars in red light districts around the Bay Area.
That was before the site was closed completely. Now, what will happen to Tiffany? “Today, the Department of Justice seized Backpage, and it can no longer be used by criminals to promote and facilitate human trafficking,” said Attorney General Sessions in an announcement celebrating the charges. Sessions did not expound upon the costs associated with the closure.
Anti-trafficking advocate, Criminology professor and author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, disagrees strongly with the notion that the seizure will help the trafficked. In an interview with LibertyNation.com, she called the move a hollow victory for anti-traffic efforts and said that data indicates commercial sex transactions are being dispersed and displaced to other places, not eliminated.
Mehlman-Orozco is critical of the decision to focus prosecution efforts on website operators who were generally cooperative with police efforts to prosecute the traffickers. Sex trafficking refers to a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or any transaction with a minor. Asked if this action will reduce the incidence of victimization and trafficking of people in the United States, her answer is “absolutely not.”
Instead of blaming the traffickers, instead of going after them and holding them accountable, we’re blaming third parties like hotels and websites. We know that police, with frequency, misidentify victims. If the police, who are trained to identify them and who work in this area on a daily basis, if they cannot correctly identify a victim versus an offender, how can we expect the manager of a hotel or website dealing with thousands of visitors or millions of posters to discern the difference?
According to Mehlman-Orozco’s police sources, Backpage was very cooperative in trafficking investigations, quickly turning over information requests and subpoenas. Dr. Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night — the only comprehensive program in North America devoted to saving children forced into prostitution – is another critic of the action against Backpage and its executives. She told the Miami Herald this amounts to “selective enforcement,” and that “trafficking remains thriving on mainstream social media pages such as Facebook”.
Decisions to prosecute are political, let alone in a behemoth of a case with such profound First Amendment implications as this. Jeff Sessions and perhaps President Trump himself were involved in the decision to bring this prosecution. Trump has yet to bother nominating any candidate for U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, where the case was brought. The top official is First Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth A. Strange. Strange was the acting U.S. attorney after Trump’s inauguration, but her tenure expired in November when she reached a 300-day limit mandated by federal law for acting officials.
The absence of a local U.S. attorney in place means even more control, direction, and oversight by Sessions and his deputies in Washington.
Lacey, Larkin, and Ferrar are by now well-seasoned defendants. In 2016, the trio was charged by California Attorney General Kamala Harris with pimping, conspiracy, and money laundering. The defendants were able to get the court to throw out the charges in two months. Harris, in a bid labeled an election year stunt, brought new charges, claiming new evidence warranted them. The new prostitution charges were tossed out of court, again, when the judge declared the defendants were protected under the Communications Decency Act. The money laundering charges are still being litigated.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio had Lacey and Larkin arrested in a politically motivated move to shut them up in 2007. Their publication Phoenix New Times had been a thorn in his side, detailing his corruption and malfeasance. The nighttime arrests were so lacking in merit the county paid Larkin and Lacey $3.75 million to settle their claims of being arrested without legal cause.
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