In-Depth: Backpage Busted

Late last week, the U.S. government seized the “notorious” classified advertising site Backpage.com.

Backpage.com logo

What Happened?

The FBI, DOJ and other U.S. agencies seized the online classified ad site Backpage.com on Friday.  They raided home of Michael Lacey, a co-founder of Backpage.com, at the same time.

The list of agencies also includes the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, with analytical assistance from the Joint Regional Intelligence Center. These go way beyond a normal prostitution sting.  See the charges below for more.

The current “Administrative Contact” for the Backpage.com site is now the United States Postal Inspection Service.

Interestingly, some sites are now blocking U.S. access, forcing users to use a VPN.  Which sounds a lot like living in China or North Korea.

What is SESTA/FOSTA

The interesting aspect of this is that the Feds had claimed they need FOSTA-SESTA to shut down trafficking sites.  That’s clearly not the case, and SESTA will erode privacy rights.

FOSTA is the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act”.  SESTA is the “Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act,” and is much broader than FOSTA; it would impose liability (responsibility) on sites hosting advertising they know or should know helps advertisers profit from sex trafficking.

The full text is here.  It amends the Communications Act of 1934 (yes, 80+ years ago)

Much of the internet opposes SESTA-FOSTA as a form of overly-broad censorship, which it does appear to be.  Some of the reasoning is sound…

In short, an online community could be charged with violating this law unwittingly, facing prison or at least very expensive legal defense, without actually having done anything wrong.  It is the most dangerous kind of censorship.

But some of the arguments against FOSTA aren’t necessarily persuasive to those who are opposed to prostitution as dehumanizing and disempowering (beyond the claim by some self-proclaimed sex-workers that prostitution is in fact empowering and that banning it is both disempowering and misogynistic)…

Some research suggests and people claim that prostitutes are safer with the internet.  A Baylor University/West Virginia University study suggests that the online prostitution ads reduced female homicides significantly by providing a safer venue for their business.  Basically, they moved from vulnerable street walkers to empowered escorts.

What was Backpage.com?

Backpage was an alternative to Craigslist.  Despite the hyperbolic descriptions, it wasn’t primarily a sex site.  Only two or three (out of around 80) sections could be used for “personals”:

  • Dating…
    • “Women > Men” (Women Seeking Men) was the primary one.
    • Other choices in Dating were: “Men > Women”, “Men > Men”, “Women > Women” and “t >t” (trans.)
  • Services – Therapeutic Massage.

The balance was events, places, classified ads for everything from tickets to pets to giveaways, cars, gigs, houses, jobs… just like Craigslist.

Backpage had always positioned itself as a competitor to Craigslist.com.  Both featured a variety of classified ad sections, broken down by geographic area.  And both included a section common to the free printed classified in many major cities, an Erotic Services section.

On Craigslist, the erotic services section was called precisely this until 2009, when Craigslist bowed to pressure claiming that this was just a front for prostitution, and removed it.  Craigslist replaced it with Adult Classifieds… which they took down three weeks ago after FOSTA passed in Congress.

On Backpage, it was called the “Adult” section, which they closed in January 2017 as a result of a Senate investigation.  But they kept the “Dating” section, which was the subject of the current charges.

What Specifically Was The Charge?

The seizure of Backpage was not specifically about prostitution.  It was about active involvement in child trafficking and prostitution.  A lawsuit over whether Backpage modified an advertisement that enabled the selling-for-sex of an unwilling minor may have been an impetus.  A U.S. Senate investigation determined this due to Backpage (automatically) editing out of ads phrases including “Lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” and “amber alert.”

Backpage has always maintained that they are not responsible for the content of the ads on their site.  But if they’re modifying the content, they are responsible for it.  And given how they (allegedly) modified it, they did facilitate child sex trafficking.

This was not the first time Backpage has been in trouble.  Two years ago, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested upon returning from Amsterdam to Houston, on charges of money laundering and pimping.

How Does Seizing Work?

A web site can be “seized” – have different content displayed – purely electronically.  The domain name can be seized at the registrar.  This just means that, when you navigate to, for example, “http://www.yournamehere.com”, what happens is:

Your computer asks a Domain Name Server (DNS) for the IP Address (like a phone number for a computer or web page) associated with that name.  If it doesn’t have it, or every so often even if it does, it checks with an upstream authority.

That number is registered with the “Registrar”, such as Network Solutions or GoDaddy.  But each extension has a set of rules and jurisdiction.

In this case, the top-level domain, the extension, is “.com”  That stood for “commercial” initially.  It started under the U.S. Department of Defense, but today is administered by Verisign, still under the jurisdiction of U.S. law.  That’s important.  To avoid U.S. jurisdiction, you would need a non-U.S. TLD (top-level domain.)

What probably happened in this case is that the government’s lawyers (presumably) got a warrant or order forcing the registrar to hand authority to them, and then they changed the IP Address for that name.  Seizing the web page doesn’t necessarily involve physically taking anything.

Why Do You Care?

Do “the ends justify the means”?  In this case…

  • Reducing sex trafficking, especially of minors, is noble.
  • But increased censorship and liability is generally bad.
  • And, since SESTA-FOSTA was not used for seizing Backpage, it’s clearly not necessary.

This is one of those cases where a lot is going on, and there’s no clear right or wrong once you look at all the issues.

Regardless, check tomorrow for a special Reality Dispatch on VPNs and protecting yourself.

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