Updated Jan. 10, 11 a.m. (EST), with quotes from and links to the committee report and the Backpage response
Just as Craigslist did in September 2010, Backpage.com today eliminated its adult services ads, blaming “unconstitutional government censorship.”
Ironically, the action came on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled in favor of Backpage in a case involving three women who sued the site claiming it was responsible
because they were trafficked through Backpage ads.
The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had scheduled a hearing about Backpage adult services ads for tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan. 10).
In advance of the hearing, the committee issued a 53-page report charging that “Backpage’s public defense is a fiction,” and “is involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives from the general public (excluding reports by Backpage itself). …
“Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads,” the report said.
In response, Backpage submitted a five-page letter to the committee saying none of its executives or attorneys would testify at the hearing, even though they were subpoenaed, and compared the committee’s activities to the days of the Cold War McCarthy witch-hunt hearings conducted by the same committee in the 1950s.
“The coercive evil of human trafficking did not start with the creation of Backpage or the internet, and unfortunately it will not end with today’s government censorship of Backpage’s adult section,” wrote Backpage attorney Steven R. Ross.
“There is an unfortunate irony to the ‘success’ of the subcommittee and the others with whom it has worked in closing down Backpage’s adult section. … Shutting down the adult section will not end the scourge of human trafficking. Those who posted ads in furtherance of such activities will rapidly find other less transparent avenues on the internet to pursue their illegal schemes — but both law enforcement and those seeking to help the victims will be deprived of their most active and cooperative partner in mitigating such activity.”
The site has been fighting multiple legal battles, including criminal charges in California. A hearing on the latest charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin is scheduled Wednesday in a state court in Sacramento, Calif. In December, California Superior Court Judge Michael G. Bowman threw out earlier criminal charges that had been filed against Backpage by state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, saying the site was protected by the federal Communications Decency Act from all charges.
Harris later filed separate criminal charges of pimping and money laundering. Those are the charges scheduled for hearing this week. (Harris, meantime, left the attorney general’s office in California and was sworn in last week to the U.S. Senate, where she has been assigned to the subcommittee on investigations.)
The Dallas-based site tonight posted a block where its adult-services section used to appear, saying in big red letters, “CENSORED.”
“The government has unconstitutionally censored this content,” the site said.
In a news release on the site, Backpage said “new government tactics … have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”
“This will not end the fight for online freedom of speech. Backpage.com will continue to pursue its efforts in court to vindicate its First Amendment rights and those of other online platforms for third-party expression,” the site said.
The company said it would not comment further.
Craigslist, the original major free-ad classified site in the U.S., dropped its “erotic services” ads in May 2009 under heavy political pressure, but replaced them almost immediately with “adult services” ads. Most were thinly disguised ads for prostitution. Under pressure again from state attorneys general and Congress, Craigslist finally eliminated the ads permanently in September 2010, placing a “Censored” banner where the “adult services” ads lived. At the time, Craigslist was generating an estimated $45 million annually from ads in that category.
When Craigslist eliminated the prostitution ads, Backpage immediately flourished. It became the primary de facto prostitution advertising site in the U.S., generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Its revenue collapsed briefly when Sheriff Thomas J. Dart of Cook County, Ill., pressured credit card companies to stop processing payments for Backpage — a move that led a federal judge to call Dart a liar and enjoin him from any further action against Backpage. But by that time the damage was done.
Backpage made all of its adult services ads free, but it found workarounds for payments for featured ads — Bitcoins, electronic funds transfers and payments by check or cash through the mail — and the ads once again became a significant revenue stream for the site, which also includes other ads but is best known for the adult services ads.
The site launched in 2004 as an adjunct to a group of alternative newsweekly newspapers that ran classified ads (including adult services ads) on their back pages.