Inevitably, Backpage.com has been shut down. The New York Times reports that on Friday, the F.B.I. raided the home of co-founder and former alt weekly mogul Michael Lacey; a Newsweek headline reads “founder charged with 93 counts in sealed indictment” but does not elaborate.
It looks like the end of a long protracted battle for Backpage, a classifieds site which became a marketplace for sex work and whose adult services section had already been shut down by law enforcement last January. Backpage started as an online branch of Village Voice Media; in 2012, Village Voice Media owners Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin sold off their 13 alt-weeklies (including The Village Voice, SF Weekly, LA Weekly, Westword, and the Phoenix New Times) and kept Backpage; and in 2014, Lacey and Larkin sold their interest in the company to CEO Carl Ferrer, who was charged with pimping a minor in 2016.
Ferrer’s case was dismissed under the Communications Decency Act, which protects sites from being held accountable for the actions of their users–effectively protecting free speech so that host sites and publications don’t censor users for fear of legal retribution.
The shutdown comes soon after bipartisan legislation passed the house and senate to amend the Communications Decency Act so that states and victims can sue host sites for, nominally, enabling sex trafficking. While both the Senate’s and Congress’s bills (SESTA and FOSTA, respectively) intend to penalize sites for enabling sex trafficking, FOSTA in particular conflates trafficking with all sex work. FOSTA criminalizes anyone who “owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service...or conspires or attempts to do so, with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” That means the resulting law, which has yet to be signed by Trump, could cover almost any tangentially-sex-related forum. It’s unclear what the final version will look like, but Craigslist has preemptively shuttered its personals, and Reddit, its escort and sugar daddy forums.
Senator Claire McCaskill, who was once a sex crimes prosecutor, celebrated the Backpage shutdown, saying in a statement that SESTA-FOSTA bills are necessary to allow state and local law enforcement to take action without waiting for the federal government:
State and local law enforcement need this bill to enable them to take swift action against websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children online, and to stop the next Backpage long before another website can claim so many innocent victims.
Many sex workers argue that under their broad scope, SESTA and FOSTA could cut off spaces to share safety information, stymie outreach efforts, and prevent them from flagging dangerous clients, while driving those clients and sex traffickers further off the radar. A sex worker group “Against SESTA” argues that shutting down sex work sites would drive “sex workers, including those who are trafficked, to find clients on the street where they face higher rates of violence, HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections, and exploitation.” The ACLU officially stands against FOSTA and SESTA more broadly because, they argue, the implications could open the door to a general stifling of political and artistic speech while doing little to strengthen the current laws.