On 9 January 2017, the popular advertising platform Backpage.com removed the adult section of its website in the United States. The closure placed thousands of American sex workers in crisis. They removed the adult section hours after The Senate Homeland Security Committee published a report from subpoenaed internal documents of Backpage.com.
Former Backpage owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey claim that, like the decision made by Craigslist to eradicate its adult category in 2010, this decision is “the culmination of years of effort by government at various levels to exert pressure on Backpage.com and to make it too costly to continue.” According to their press release, state and federal officials have been pressuring Backpage to close its adult section since 2010. This effort, say Larkin and Lacey, “is spearheaded by headline hunting politicians who understand that government-regulated banks and credit card companies won’t lift a finger to protect the First Amendment rights of websites and Internet users from government intrusion.” Their statement points to the fact that Visa and Mastercard stopped allowing their credit services to be used to pay for adult ads on Backpage following a request from Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
In its “Recommendation to Enforce a Subpoena Issued to the CEO of Backpage.com, LLC”, the bipartisan Senate Subcommittee in charge of this investigation claims companies doing business with Backpage withdrew their services voluntarily, noting that MasterCard stated that it “has rules that prohibit our cards from being used for illegal or brand-damaging activities” and Visa stated that company “rules prohibit our network from being used for illegal activity.” Backpage tried to help its clients use credit cards on the website. Unfortunately, this was understood as Backpage facilitating illegal activities such as human trafficking.
The report accusing Backpage of knowingly facilitating illegal activities charged Backpage “with having conspired to commit pimping by the publication of nine Adult ads created and placed by users over a three-year period in which hundreds of millions of ads were posted to Backpage.” In a ruling dismissing the case in December 2016, Judge Michael Bowman of the Sacramento County Superior Court held that federal law protects websites from liability for these third-party posts.
Larkin and Lacey “intend to sue Kamala Harris and the California Attorney General’s Office for her October arrest and prosecution that Harris knew had no basis in law when she brought it.” Harris, who is opposed to the decriminalisation of sex work, is now a senator and continues to be a driving force behind this case. Harris was criticised by The Desiree Alliance, who argued she was “out of touch with her constituents.”
In its “Recommendation to Enforce a Subpoena Issued to the CEO of Backpage.com”, the Senate Subcommittee says that it required “the production of documents concerning Backpage’s moderation and ad-review procedures, basic financial information, and other topics” in order “to better understand these procedures, their efficacy, and their costs.” The Senate Subcommittee released the report after this hostile investigation. Backpage refused “a subpoena to turn over company materials to investigators, but the panel secured a federal court order to force compliance,” according to the LA Times. The report conflates its claims of Backpage “knowingly facilitating online sex trafficking” with the business practices of people following guidelines around adult sexual services.
The owners of Backpage have the support of Children of the Night. Though Lois Lee, founder of this organisation, states in a video on its website that, “there is no difference between sex trafficking and prostitution,” she describes Backpage as “a critical investigative tool depended on by America's vice detectives and agents in the field to locate and recover missing children and to arrest and successfully prosecute the pimps who prostitute children.” She says that Backpage would “bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police” making “law enforcement's job easier.” Ads for Children of the Night and its rescue hotline “were featured prominently on Backpage” and became the highest source of the agency’s calls “and increased the numbers of children coming to us for rescue. This resource for children in need to easily find us has been extinguished.”
Those responsible for shutting down Backpage’s adult section have consistently profited off the criminalisation of sex work in the United States as a means of strong-arming the website. Rather than suggesting safer systems or acknowledging that the criminalisation of sex work leads to situations that benefit predators, these groups are intent on shutting down these structures entirely.