This page was last edited May 24, 2018.
Backpage Empire (2011-2017)
The second part will detail Backpage’s fierce reign.
The Not So Golden Years
After Craigslist bitched out, Backpage was now crowned supreme ruler of adult classifieds nationwide in the USA. A whopping 80 percent of online sex ads would soon be hosted by Backpage. The online classifieds generated millions for the owners, Village Voice Media; however, their classifieds would also become a major destination for child sex trafficking.
By 2012, Backpage had endured four legal disputes. In 2013, Backpage helped with the seventh and largest trafficking raid titled Operation Cross Country. In 2016, Backpage had an estimated 2 million visitors per day.
Backpage would later serve 869 cities in total globally. Countries such as Germany, Ireland, Italy, etc. could now use the online classifieds. Backpage would further their global reach by creating sister site, Cracker. This would become a popular classifieds in Australia, Dubai and Hong Kong.
Backpage.com Taken Offline
the warrior, undefeated
Throughout the years of 2011-2017, Backpage would go through numerous legal difficulties while still rising. Craigslist was easily convinced by lawmakers, but Backpage wouldn’t be so quick to back down. With the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Backpage would vigorously fight back against online government censorship.
Village Voice Media Under Pressure
In September 2010, after Craigslist tore down its adult services advertisements, Village Voice Media was now dealing with the heavy pressure to remove their adult ads from the government and various organizations. Even celebrities.
VVM pointed out that, in addition to cooperating with sting operations and promptly responding to subpoenas, the company uses aggressive content moderation and content filtration. They also worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop logarithmic screens that filter terms that propose illegal transactions.
Liz McDougal, former attorney of Village Voice Media, said that Backpage was “a critical ally in stopping human trafficking online.”
Village Voice Media Breaks
In 2012, VVM finally cut off ties to Backpage. During this time, Backpage was now considered the ‘online sex trafficking brothel’.
Village Voice Pimps was an anti-trafficking group mocking the company with an anonymous website. AT&T, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and IHOP stopped all of their advertisements with VVM since they were associated with Backpage. Even celebrities such as Alicia Keys was horrified with VVM’s association with the infamous Backpage.
Mike Lacey & Jim Larkin, Village Voice Media controlling shareholders, would now operate Backpage as a separate entity far away from VVM.
Doe vs. Backpage
In 2014, three girls sued Backpage for the sexual abuse that they suffered while they were trafficked and advertised on the website. Two of the Does were underage. These incidents happened in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One Doe was raped more than a thousand times and advertised 300 times on Backpage, and another Doe endured 900 rapes. The Does testified that Backpage deceived law enforcement and,
“implemented and perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”
The Does lost due to Backpage’s protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
In 2009, Backpage developed an automatic filtering system, The Strip Term From Ad filter. It would delete forbidden terms that suggested any illegal activity such as prostitution and sex trafficking. Terms included lolita, young, teen, rape, fresh faced, dollar sign symbols, etc. According to a report, the automatic filter seemed to have stopped being used somewhere in 2012.
After 2012, Backpage presented a more consumer friendly approach to moderation for their adult classifieds. Ads would be rejected entirely if it contained any forbidden terms, but it wouldn’t remove an ad altogether. If a user tried to use the word young in an ad, the user would get an error message such as, “Sorry. The term young is banned,” and this would let the user edit & remove any forbidden terms themselves.
Note: Backpage’s ad moderation is continuously shined in the media as their part of ‘helping pimps/traffickers sanitize their advertisements’. However, all who advertised via Backpage, even consensual sex workers, had their ads moderated the same. Backpage’s moderation tactics weren’t exclusively designed to facilitate human trafficking.
Now, fast forward to 2017, Backpage was accused of manually editing their ads. If these allegations were indeed true, then this means that Backpage could potentially lose their protection from CDA 230 altogether. They’re now accountable for the new content they created from their editing. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains here.
Backpage Report 01.10.2017
Credit Cards Cease
In 2015, major credit card companies ceased all transactions via Backpage after receiving a letter from a sheriff, Tom Dart, demanding that they stop any payments to Backpage. Visa & Mastercard withdrew days after Dart’s threat. Backpage vs. Dart would soon arise.
Backpage vs. Dart
A case involving a Cook County sheriff, Tom Dart, wanted to end all credit card transactions to Backpage. This would include purchases for legal services. Dart had tried to sue Craigslist in the past over their adult section as well, but he failed. So, after his failure with Craigslist, he now focused on Backpage. Dart was determined to take down BP’s adult services.
Backpage shot back with legal action stating that Dart was violating the First Amendment, and that he was also using his legal authority to eliminate their protection of speech. Backpage won the case. A three-panel judge declared,
“a public official trying to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through ‘actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction’ is violating the First Amendment.”
Dart even tried to convince the judge that his letter was protected with the First Amendment since he reported to the banks as private individual and not as a public authority. The judge shut down Dart with,
“The letter is on stationery captioned “Office of the Sheriff,” and begins: “As the Sheriff of Cook County, a father and a caring citizen, I write to request that your institution immediately cease and desist from allowing your credit cards to be used to place ads on websites like Backpage.com.” Notice that he is sheriff first, father and citizen second; notice his use of the legal term “cease and desist”.
Although Backpage succeeded with Backpage vs. Dart, credit card companies had already ceased all transactions within Backpage. Now, the owners would have to implement a new way of payment for advertisers.
Banks and Criminal Content
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) always voiced their support for Backpage in regards to free speech via the internet. Rainey Reitman, director of activism, voiced her opinion over the credit card situation in favor of Backpage. She further went on to say,
“Backpage.com can be used to sell an old refrigerator, find a new apartment, post about new community workshops, find a job, and offer many other services and goods. It also hosts an “adult” section of the site, where some people advertise escort services or try to connect with people who have similar sexual interests. This “adult” section requires visitors to confirm they are at least 18 years of age and allows users to get resources for reporting cases of suspected sexual exploitation with one click.”
Bitcoin & Credits
With credit cards no longer an option for payment, this meant that Backpage would have to pursue underground techniques for payment. Bitcoin was introduced. It’s a cryptocurrency with a high chance of being untraceable to its buyer. Advertisers could receive bitcoin by purchasing a gift card, and trading their gift card for bitcoins on websites such as Paxful. Prepaid cards such as Netspend could also be used for payment.
Houston Hold Up
In 2016, after returning from Amsterdam, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, was arrested in Houston’s George Intercontinental Airport. His charges: pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy to commit pimping.
A three-year investigation found that numerous Backpage adult escort adverts had sex trafficking victims, including minors. Back in 2012, Ferrer & Lacey claimed that they were co-operating with authorities to help prosecute those condoning illegal activities.
Backpage’s terms & conditions stated, “posting any material on the site that in any way constitutes or assists in human trafficking” isn’t allowed and users must abide by local laws; futhermore, Backpage had a community flagging system. Multiple users would flag any ad with malicious intent.
Despite the arrest, Backpage continued to stay online.
carl against congress
Carl Ferrer would go on to become the first person in 20 years to be found in contempt of US Congress.
Ferrer was to answer questions over allegations of Backpage being responsible for almost three-quarters of all reported child sex trafficking ads and forced prostitution.
He refused to attend.
On January 9, 2017, Backpage shut down their adult classifieds. After years of fighting back with the government to prevent online censorship, Backpage now censored their most prominent classifieds. The credit card situation was one way to collapse the Backpage empire. Now, the shutdown of their adult ads was simply more fuel being added to the fire.
sex worker soliloqy
Along with Backpage, the digital age also brought in social media. Many sex workers were using social media for promoting. However, now those that used Backpage, would also use this platform to voice their concerning thoughts about the censorship to their audience.
Billy Renfro, a detective from Bremerton Police had his woes about the adult shutdown. “The unfortunate thing about that is Backpage has worked really well with law enforcement. I did a search warrant a couple weeks ago and the response from Backpage was very rapid, ” he stated. Renfro wasn’t alone since numerous working in law enforcement used Backpage to investigate sex related crimes.
Backpage Shuts Down Adult Section
The End is Near
Despite the censorship, Backpage still reigned as the go-to for adult classifieds. Its sovereignty wouldn’t remain for long, and those who relied on the empire would hang on until the very end of its collapse.