Backpage Classi-side-effects

As we steer our fledgling service, we occasionally take a look at how some classifieds services are presented in the media. We have recently read a long article about Backpage founders, at least one of whom was arrested for “child pimping”.

In The Content Trap, Bharat Anand suggests that for media companies, success comes not from monetizing content but rather from identifying and playing on network effects and customer interactions.

Success for flourishing companies comes not from making the best content but from recognizing how content enables customers’ connectivity; it comes not from protecting the value of content at all costs but from unearthing related opportunities close by; and it comes not from mimicking competitors’ best practices but from seeing choices as part of a connected whole.

So it was not surprising to read the story of Backpage.com, an ad company created by some alt-media journalists to counter the effects of Craigslist on the money-making classifieds section of their business. It was, however, surprising to learn that they ended up arrested for child pimping.

October 6, Carl Ferrer, the goateed CEO of Backpage.com, left his Amsterdam office to visit the online classified-advertising site’s U.S. headquarters. He never made it back to Europe. The 55-year-old was promptly arrested by law enforcement officials from various jurisdictions after his plane touched down at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport. He was then taken to Sacramento County Jail in California and authorities raided Backpage’s mid-rise Dallas office for evidence in the case authorities planned to build against him. The California attorney general announced felony charges of pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy to commit pimping against Ferrer. (And yes, these are the real names of charges in California.)

Backpage is the most prominent online destination for on-demand paid sex in the United States, and according to the arrest warrant for Ferrer and others, it made nearly 99 percent of its over $50 million revenue in California from January 2013 to March 2015 from charging for erotic classified ads. It is, in essence, an escort advertising network nestled in a Craigslist knockoff.

This is both surprising and worrisome to anyone who is contemplating helping people sell anything. Nonetheless, the public perception of it as such is reflected by pop culture:

Backpage’s lurid side has wormed its way into pop culture. Rappers like YG, Vic Mensa, and Migos all name-drop it in songs. (Sample lyric, courtesy of French Montana: “And I ain’t got a Backpage / fucking with them hoes.”) Last October, Backpage figured into a viral Twitter story about “hoeism” and murder. The website is a sloppy pseudo-honeypot where police click through hundreds of ads peddling sex before pouncing. In Jacksonville, Arkansas, last year, police dubbed a sting “Operation Backpage” after using the website to nab women selling sexual services. Last month, 10 men were arrested in Colorado after police monitored Backpage to build a sting operation. Also in November, a man who police call a pimp and who allegedly chained teenagers up inside a makeshift bedroom in Detroit was arrested after the teens escaped; a criminal complaint filed against the man says he would arrange “incalls” and other meetups for johns in his ramshackle de facto cell through several Backpage postings.

I have always assumed that designing a classifieds website is not tantamount to selling whatever is being sold. Should Craig be responsible for everything shady going on at Craigslist?

“Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement in October. Her office had brought the charges against the men in the middle of what would turn out to be her successful campaign for U.S. Senate.

Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall called the arrests an “election year stunt.”

Whether or not it was designed to be a brothel, and whether its owners are neutral web hosts attacked for political gain or nefarious pimps adept at skating the law, is what the court must decide. But what Lacey and Larkin wanted Ferrer to do when they launched Backpage was something less controversial: They wanted him to steer the advertising business that would keep their journalism passion project afloat.

This is a long article and you might want to read it in its original. Still, here’s the crux of the matter:

The nonprofit views Backpage as so tightly tied to the sale of children for rape that the website is now the first place it searches for children reported missing. In a 2016 amicus brief, the organization outlined the ways in which it believes that Backpage has been deliberately optimized to keep the child trafficking industry going, including having relaxed posting rules for escort ads while requiring other sellers to provide valid telephone numbers. It also describes a case in which one child was “sold for sex more than 50 times on backpage.com beginning when she was 12 years old.” The organization has worked on more than 420 cases in which children were trafficked through Backpage.

“I don’t know that anyone really believes that there’s a way, with a website offering those services, to completely eliminate [the sex trade],” Staca Shehan, the executive director of the NCMEC’s Case Analysis Division, told me. “But there’s a lot to be done to reduce the likelihood, to reduce this website as a target to buy and sell children for sex.”

The relationship between Backpage and NCMEC was originally cooperative, but Shehan says it soured in 2013, when the center decided the site’s crackdown attempts were theater. She said that Backpage would voluntarily report that it took down one advertisement for a minor, but that her researchers would discover the same image of the child in many other posts that remained online and untouched. This infuriates Shehan. “Why would you report one, and not all the other ones that your website is hosting? Why wouldn’t you remove that ad if you suspect that a child is being sold for sex and block the individual user?” she said.

In March, the Senate voted unanimously to hold Ferrer in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena for a separate investigation into Backpage’s activities — the first contempt authorization in more than 20 years. This investigation paints Backpage as a deliberately sinister operation, claiming that the company edits advertisements to make them look less like sex trafficking. “Our investigation showed that Backpage ‘edits’ advertisements before posting them, by removing certain words, phrases, or images. For instance, they might remove a word or image that makes clear that sexual services are being offered for money. And then they would post this ‘sanitized’ version of the ad,” Senator Rob Portman said in a statement. “In other words, Backpage’s editing procedures, far from being an effective anti-trafficking measure, only served to sanitize the ads of illegal content to an outside viewer.”

While lawmakers like Portman see Backpage as a demonic helpmate for rapists and abusive pimps, the website has a reputation as a valuable safety tool within some sex worker communities.

Consenting, adult sex workers often praise Backpage for helping minimize the risks of their job. Sex worker advocacy groups have condemned the prosecution of Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin. In San Francisco, sex workers and supporters gathered to protest the Backpage arrests. “This culmination of a three-year investigation by the California government is a shocking waste of resources for a political stunt that leaves sex workers and trafficking victims stigmatized, isolated, and more vulnerable to violence,” the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project said in a statement condemning Ferrer’s arrest.

The phantoms of other shuttered and beleaguered sex ad sites worry sex workers who view digital classifieds as instrumental to their safety. RedBook, a long-running Bay Area hub for sex work ads, was shut down after an investigation by the IRS and FBI in 2014. “Authorities say the San Francisco–based website, which primarily served California and Nevada, facilitated prostitution and had to fall. Sex workers say the site provided a meager safeguard against predators, pimps, and cops,” the Sacramento News & Reviewwrote. “When it disappeared, the most at-risk workers — those of limited means and greatest need — were displaced to the streets.”

Shehan has stressed that NCMEC is focused solely on Backpage as a facilitator of child abuse, and that it is unconcerned with sex workers who are consenting adults. And children are included in the arrest warrant. “Backpage acknowledges that pimps routinely pay Backpage for ads trafficking children for sex,” it reads. The warrant cites testimony from young women, including minors, who had been pimped out and raped.

Here’s a clearer explanation of what caused them to be arrested:

The arrest warrant describes how a California Department of Justice agent personally called Ferrer to alert him of an illegal ad. Upending expectations, the warrant notes that the CEO promised to promptly remove this ad — and then kept his word and promptly removed it. So it isn’t that the website lacks moderation; the allegation is that Backpage’s moderation isn’t sufficient enough, and that insufficiency is tantamount to the act of pimping.

It is an unusual stretch of the definition of a very old crime. By arresting Backpage’s current and former executives, Harris was sending a message: If the definition of pimping hadn’t yet changed, she was trying to change it.

Craigslist had its part in making Backpage bigger:

It didn’t take long for Craigslist to become the online destination for sex work ads. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal wrote a letter to Craigslist in 2008, asking the website to remove sexual solicitations and to better enforce its rules, but the government campaign against the site reached its first peak when an Illinois politician took it up as a pet cause. Before Kamala Harris, there was Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart: In 2009, Dart filed a complaint against Craigslist, seeking to shut down its Erotic Services section as a public nuisance. “The blatancy of erotic services has made Craigslist the bete noir of law enforcement,” Dart’s complaint says.

Although the lawsuit was thrown out — more on that soon — Craigslist shut down its Erotic Services section in 2010. It didn’t do so without a fuck-you, though, placing the word “Censored” over its retired section. Killing law enforcement’s bete noir did not eradicate sex worker ads from the website, of course. What it did was push sex workers to look for more hospitable sites. When Craigslist’s sex ads petered out, Backpage began to boom.

..and not only Craigslist:

While Craigslist slinked away from its problems by shuttering its erotica section, websites that continued to operate have fared far worse. Southwest Companions, a website for sex workers ran by a former interim president of the University of New Mexico and a New Jersey physics professor as “a hobby,” was the target of a similar lawsuit for facilitating prostitution. The lecherous academics became professional pariahs, and they were arrested on charges of promoting prostitution. A state judge cleared them after ruling that the website was legal and was not a “house of prostitution” in 2012.

As I mentioned earlier, RedBook was shut down — and its 54-year-old founder, Eric Omuro, arrested on charges of facilitating prostitution. “Omuro’s guilty plea marked the first-ever federal conviction of a website operator for the crime of facilitating prostitution,” Wired reported on the case at the time. In 2015, the Manhattan offices of Rentboy.com, a gay-focused escorting site, were raided. CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six other employees were arrested on charges of promoting prostitution. Charges against the employees were dropped, and Hurant pleaded guilty in October. Mimicking the language used to describe RedBook, Craigslist, and Backpage, Rentboy was dubbed an “internet brothel” by authorities.

As competitors were either snagged by law enforcement or scared away from the sex ad biz by the specter of law enforcement, Backpage emerged victorious and immune-seeming from its early legal scuffles, even as lawsuits sullied the reputation of its owners. The affidavit in the case against Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin claims that Backpage made more than $3.1 million during one week in 2015 from sex ads, and that the website derived 99 percent of its revenue from sex ads from January 2013 to March 2015. This year, Bloomberg Businessweek called Backpage “a fierce standard-bearer in the war over online free speech, wrapping its business model in the First Amendment to fend off enemies in law enforcement and government.”

They fought back and managed some early victories:

The aforementioned Sheriff Dart was one of those more prominent enemies Backpage fended off. The Illinois firebrand transferred his vendetta against Craigslist to Backpage. Visa and MasterCard stopped processing credit card transactions on the adult services side of Backpage in 2015 after Dart lobbied the companies in a letter requesting that they cut ties with the classifieds site. “Sheriff Dart’s Demand to Defund Sex Trafficking Compels Visa and MasterCard to Sever Ties with Backpage.com,” a press releasefrom the sheriff’s office stated. Backpage sought an injunction against Dart last year; while it was initially denied, Backpage won in appeals. Backpage argued that Dart was violating First Amendment rights by limiting freedom of expression. In the November 2015 decision, a panel of Circuit Court judges agreed. “The sheriff ripostes that he’s not using his office to organize a boycott of Backpage by threatening legal sanctions, but merely expressing his disgust with Backpage’s sex-related ads and the illegal activities that they facilitate. That’s not true, and while he has a First Amendment right to express his views about Backpage, a public official who tries 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,” the ruling reads. The Supreme Court refused to hear Dart’s appeal, effectively shelving one crusade against Backpage.

The newspapers owned by Lacey and Larkin started an editorial offensive as lawsuits mounted, law enforcement sniffed, and pundits opined. (The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof was a particularly dogged opponent, the Tom Dart of journalism.) Two lengthy feature stories appeared in the company’s papers, looking critically at the supposedly burgeoning child trafficking issue. One of the stories called it the “underage-prostitution panic” and mocked Ashton Kutcher for exaggerating a statistic about children trafficked for sex. “The stories suggested that nonprofit operators gain financial support by inflating the magnitude of the child sex trade,” the L.A. Times noted in 2011.

The moral of the story is “don’t allow your site to be used for sex crimes” and make sure your censorship efforts are in good faith.

Sources / More info: ringer-digital, amz-tct, tct