In 2015, Backpage was the largest online publisher of sex ads in the world with their content spanning more than 97 countries. In that same time period, it generated more than 500 million dollars for owners. It is clear that the company experienced some success throughout the years in order to get to that spot in 2015; however, it has also has been under the close eye of law enforcement due to the hundreds of criminal cases connected to the site.
In June 2015, one of the most prominent examples of criminal conduct regarding this site was cited. At the time, an ad appeared on Backpage.com in the state of Texas featuring a series of photos of a woman deemed to be a potential date. In the words of the site, she was “ready to be your fantasy girl”. However, by the end of the month, that woman was murdered by a customer who responded to that very advertisement. When the victim’s father attempted to contact Backpage.com to get images of his daughter removed from the site, he was unable to do so. As a result of this case and many others, attorney generals across many states have attempted to shut down the site and hold the sites’ owners accountable for their wrongdoings.
In the same year, Congress launched its own investigation into the site. Fast forward to 2018, and Backpage has been forced to turn over millions of pages of documents. In turn, these documents have provided enough evidence for the Department of Justice to file an indictment against the company’s executives. In total, 93 federal charges were applied to the seven executives, which could lead to a prison sentence of up to 20 years. At the center of the charges are Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin.
To understand their story, it’s important to understand where their motivations originate. In 1970, four unarmed protesters were killed at Kent State University, which immediately lead Lacey and fellow Arizona State University students to create a free newspaper known as The Arizona Times.While it struggled to get by for many years, the paper’s big break finally and led Lacey to partner with Larkin and take full control of running the paper. With Lacy handling editorial duties and Larkin running the business, the paper grew. By 1990, the newspaper had a weekly circulation of nearly one hundred and forty thousand people and was known for its confrontational style.
In 2004, Lacey and Larkin noted that the free classified ads website Craigslist was overtaking newspaper revenues at an alarming rate. In an attempt to maintain their revenue, they established Backpage.com to facilitate ads in areas which traditional newspapers avoided, specifically adult services. For a number of years, Lacey and Larkin competed head-to-head with Craigslist for the adult services area. Eventually, in 2010 Craigslist backed down from that area as a result of pressure from anti-trafficking advocates. As a result, Backpage.com quickly became the dominant face of adult services and escort advertisements. In 2011, profits topped $50 million, and in 2014 they exceeded $130 million.
During their rise to the top, both Lacey and Larkin often scoffed at the heckling they received on the premise of morality. In their mind, they viewed the attacks as a sign that they were doing something right. However, the attacks and complaints about immorality eventually led to dozens of lawsuits filed against the company, which were a bit harder to brush aside. Ultimately, they were able to brush them aside citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online publishers from a penalty for hosting or posting content from a third party.
In fact, they had many run-ins with a variety of courts, include the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, but all but one case were dismissed. Throughout this time, they only had one dent in the shield. In 2012, the state of Washington rebuffed the argument provided by Backpage that they were not responsible for the content. To quickly put the case to bed, Backpage ended up settling for an undisclosed amount.
To this day, both Lacey and Larkin view themselves as first amendment martyrs fighting to preserve the freedom of speech on the world’s most used platform, the Internet. In their mind, the website brought attention to the living and thriving world of underground prostitution. According to Lacey, “Eliminating adult advertising will in no way eliminate or even reduce the incidence of prostitution in this country. For the very first time, the oldest profession in the world has transparency, record-keeping, and safeguards.”
While the argument remains whether their motivation was money or actually defending the First Amendment, their legal defense has proved to be remarkably effective. In decades past, the website and company, as a whole, have provided such broad protections for publishers of third-party content that they cannot be held reliable or legally responsible for any criminal conduct executed in conjunction with their site. However, recent allegations and prosecutions could be different, because they have gone to a whole new level of detail. In the investigation by the Senate, a strenuous effort was taken, and it was documented that a number of top company officials altered ads. Beyond that, the former CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, recently pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. Even more so, he is expected to testify against the seven current executives on trial.
At the same time, indictments were handed down to Lacey and Larkin earlier this year and Congress voted to amend the Communications Decency Act and the amendment passed by overwhelming margins. Under the new Amendment, victims of any website who knowingly enables sex trafficking through advertisements or posts of any means have the ability to take the website to court. As a result of the Amendment and many other actions that have taken place, it is harder to solicit sex trafficking online. In the words of a representative from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Yiota Soura, “we are seeing complete disruption right now in the online markets with relation to online sex trafficking. We are finding it is much harder to find a child for sex right now online.”