Carl Ferrer, the chief executive officer of Backpage.com was arrested on Thursday the 6th of October. He was charged with conspiracy and pimping a minor. Backpage.com is used by thousands of sex workers worldwide to advertise their services. It is one of many online advertising platforms impaired or shut down by US law enforcement and government officials using false or misleading information about the trafficking of minors, adults, and migrant women.
Ferrer’s arrest comes days after the Supreme Court of the United States ordered Sheriff Tom Dart to stop threatening credit card companies that do business with Backpage.com. This is significant because Sheriff Tom Dart influenced Mastercard and Visa to stop processing orders used to purchase adult service ads on Backpage.com in 2015. This limited sex workers abilities to place advertisements on Backpage.com because they could no longer use their credit cards. James Larkin, one of the owners of Backpage.com has defended the organisation’s adult ad policies, stating in a 2011 interview with The LA Times, “that the solution was not to eliminate the category of adult ads from the website” and that, “what needs to be done is what we are doing: Hosts need to monitor and remove offending posts on a real-time basis, and cooperate rapidly when illegal posts are brought to their attention.”
The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children continues to publish statistics in an effort to have Backpage.com shut down. They claim that, “based on Backpage’s business model, it has been alleged that Backpage creates, and actively encourages, a lucrative marketplace for child sex trafficking” and that “in the past five years, our Child Sex Trafficking Team has seen a 1,432-percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking” with “the majority of child sex trafficking ads reported to us” involving “ads posted on Backpage.com.” These misleading numbers are commonly used by those who conflate sex work and trafficking.
As sex worker activist Emi Koyama argued, “human trafficking is a crime. Slavery was a formal institution supported by governments, courts, militaries.” She uses the hashtag #StopCallingItModernDaySlavery to make the point that calling trafficking modern day slavery is inappropriate and misleading.
In the arrest warrant for Ferrer from the Superior Court of California for the County of Sacramento, Special Agent Brian Fichtner describes a sting operation where a 27-year old woman was “contacted and detained.” Other women swept up in these stings are described as “identified as a victim of sex trafficking” or “believed to be a victim of sex trafficking” without stating how the women themselves identify. What is clear is that many women end up in prison after undercover operations. SWOP Behind Bars, which serves the incarcerated sex work community in the US, states on its website that, “no one really knows how many women who are imprisoned have been involved in the commercial sex industry, but some estimates are as high as 70%. It’s difficult to ignore the connections between the criminalization of sex work and its impact on the prison population.”
Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason.com writes, “the charges against [Ferrer] include pimping, conspiracy, pimping of a minor, and attempted pimping of a minor.” Trafficking charges have been well-circulated by media reporting on the story, but no one at Backpage has been charged under trafficking statutes. Nolan said that none of the charges “stem from things Ferrer is alleged to have done personally. Rather, it's asserted that because he own a classified-ad website—the second largest in the world, after Craigslist—where these activities may have happened, Ferrer himself is guilty of the charges.”
Backpage.com is protected by Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which states, “that user-generated content sites cannot be held strictly liable for things members or users post.” Without Section 230, Nolan argues, “twitter could be taken down over terrorism threats from anonymous ISIS members, Facebook could be destroyed because some users have been found to solicit sex from underage individuals in its messaging section, Reason could be liable for anything its commenters post, and Craigslist could be killed over someone selling a stolen TV there.”
Nolan has spent several years writing about Backpage.com. While Backpage.com does not monitor all its ads, it has helped investigators with many investigations into child trafficking cases. In a statement posted to their website, SWOP Sacramento writes that, “to reduce the vulnerability of minors, we must create economic and social solutions to help our youth. Arresting the CEO of BackPage.com is not moving us closer to real economic solutions for vulnerable young people.” SWOP Sacramento urges “the media and our fellow Americans to report responsibly and think critically about this issue. Sex work is not the same as human trafficking. Decriminalization of sex work will help us fight sexual exploitation. Targeting BackPage.com will not.” Threatening and closing down sites like Backpage.com will only drive sex work further underground to avoid detection from law enforcement and will dissuade workers from online safety and screening methods.
NSWP has reported and condemned the criminalisation of sex work advertising platforms in the past.