Backpage Kills ‘Adult Services’ Section Amid Government Pressure, Child-Trafficking Allegations

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By Ian Miles Cheong | 4:58 pm, January 10, 2017
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Another prostitution site bites the dust.

Backpage is shutting down its “adult services” section after several lengthy legal battles with both the government and private individuals. The company, infamous for serving as a platform for prostitution, is blaming “unconstitutional government censorship” on the decision. Prostitution is a crime in many states.

The move follows that of Craigslist, which removed its own “adult services” section in 2010. That, in turn, fueled Backpage’s popularity. Both Visa and MasterCard blocked use of their services through the site in 2015, prompting its users to turn to untraceable backchannels like Bitcoin and similar digital currencies.

The company claims that its classifieds business deserves protection under the First Amendment—one disputed by the U.S. Senate, which released a report stating that the company had “knowingly concealed evidence of criminality.”

In the report, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommitee on Investigations stated that Backpage was involved in 73% of all child trafficking reports referred to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). And instead of monitoring suspicious ads, the company opted to ban certain words and phrases, including “fresh,” “rape” and “young.” The ads were initially removed by an automated filter, and manual checks removed ads with euphemistic language, but others were allowed to run. However, in 2012, the company adopted a new policy of giving users an error message if they posted banned words, allowing them to reword their entries for resubmission.

In addition, the Senate committee presented evidence by whistleblowers who described their job as having to “sanitize” and moderate ads, ultimately allowing them to go through. It stated that Backpage had sent reports in to the NCMEC but imposed a quota on the number of alerts they sent.

Outside the US Senate, Backpage faced multiple legal battles, including criminal charges in California against CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, alleging they had committed pimping offenses and made millions of dollars in the sex trade. The case was dismissed by the court, which ruled that website publishers are not responsible for user-created content. Had it gone ahead, social media platforms like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube could have been held legally accountable for criminal acts posted by their users. Separate charges were filed against Ferrer on pimping and money laundering.

On the same day Backpage shut down the section, the US Supreme Court ruled in their favor on a case involving three women who alleged that the site was at fault because they were sold as prostitutes on the website when they were as young as 15.

In the company’s defense of itself, Backpage claimed the ads helped the company track down missing children and published a statement by Children of the Night, an organization funded by Backpage, which stated that the company “[bent] over backwards to help and cooperate with police.”

On its now “censored” page, Backpage has hinted that it may revive the “adult services” section, and has vowed to keep fighting. To countries outside the United States, Backpage still offers its “adult services” section.

Ian Miles Cheong is a journalist and outspoken game critic. You can reach him through social media at @stillgray on Twitter and on Facebook.