As was expected and predicted, the Justice Department this week announced the seizure of Backpage.com, a Website it called “the Internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads, including ads depicting the prostitution of children.”
The federal raid comes two days prior to President Trump’s April 11 signing of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (also known as FOSTA), a bill that aims to fight sex trafficking by reducing legal protections for online platforms. The new law is an updated version of a bill that made it a federal crime to own, manage, or operate a Website with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.
Seven individuals associated with Backpage were charged in a 93-count federal indictment with the crimes of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, facilitating prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, conspiracy to commit money laundering, concealment money laundering, international promotional money laundering, and transactional money laundering.
“Backpage has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking, placing profits over the well-being and safety of the many thousands of women and children who were victimized by its practices,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Strange. “Some of the internal emails and company documents described in the indictment are shocking in their callousness.”
“An indictment of this magnitude is particularly troubling when you look at the various layers of corruption and exploitation that are alleged to have occurred,” said IRS-CI Chief John D. Fort. “The masterminds behind Backpage are not only alleged to have committed egregious amounts of financial crimes such as money laundering, they did so at the expense of innocent women and children. While these types of investigations can be made more challenging with the use of virtual currency, offshore banking, and the anonymity of the Internet, it should serve as an example to all criminals that there is not a place they can hide where we will not find them.”
On March 21, the Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 97-2, capping what had been a 10-year battle.
The proposed legislation sought to tweak existing regulations, notably Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That section of the law has been a relied upon protection for social media firms and other tech companies in that it protects them from legal liability associated with third party content posted by others and hosted on their sites.
The new FOSTA law also amends Section 230 by including an exception for sex trafficking. Doing so, proponents say, will better allow legal efforts against well-known forums for prostitution and sex trafficking, such as Backpage.com.
Over time, the nation’s largest tech companies, once in opposition to the plan, have relented.
In August 2017, tech trade groups jointly protested the Senate bill initiated by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), despite being “ready to work with Congress on effective measures to fight human trafficking.” Amendments to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, however, “would severely undermine a crucial protection for legitimate online companies, and would be counterproductive to those companies’ efforts to combat trafficking crimes. Without this crucial protection, these service providers would be forced to err on the side of removing their users’ content or face unsustainable liability for their users’ content that would harm the creation of legitimate diverse online services.”
The industry’s objections eventually softened. Late last year, Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman praised compromises that were made to the bill to prevent what critics feared would be an explosion of civil lawsuits.
Congresswoman Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), an outspoken supporter of FOSTA, endorsed the Walters Amendment. It would clarify that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not impair or limit victims of sex trafficking from using their private right of action against the Websites that sell them.
“This legislation is about more than just Backpage.com; by amending Section 230 to give federal, state, and local prosecutors practical tools to hold Websites accountable, we will wreak havoc on the hundreds of Websites profiting from the sale of sex trafficking victims across my district and our country,” she said.
“We are so excited,” Wagner said at the White House signing ceremony. “This is landmark legislation that is truly going to save lives, and it already is. I received a text message from the Manhattan district attorney last night that said we have already shut down 87 percent of the online sex trafficking ads out there. And we’re after the remaining 13 percent.”