Judge drops pimping charges against Backpage executives
Company once again uses federal law to defend against claims of aiding sex traffickers
A California judge on Friday dismissed pimping charges against three men connected to embattled online advertiser Backpage.com. Police arrested CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin in October. They faced felony pimping charges because Backpage’s adult ads often include women and children who are being trafficked.
The charges followed a three-year investigation by the offices of the Texas and California attorneys general which revealed adult and child sex-trafficking victims were forced into prostitution through escort ads that appeared on Backpage. Court documents filed by the California attorney general’s office noted that when police or anti-trafficking groups made Backpage executives aware of the ads, they often took little or no action to remove them.
“Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said.
But as it has successfully done many times in the past, Backpage defended itself by citing a small section of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which says online intermediaries that host or republish speech aren’t responsible for what their customers say and do.
Harris’ office maintained Backpage operators did not merely offer a platform but actively aided customers in crafting ads that would evade prosecution.
“The Communications Decency Act was not meant to be a shield from criminal prosecution for perpetrators of online brothels,” Harris said. “The evidence is clear—these defendants are responsible for personally creating and publishing the content that was used to pimp and traffic victims on their websites.”
The state asked Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael G. Bowman to proceed with a preliminary hearing, during which prosecutors could fully present their evidence. The judge declined.
“The victimization resulted from the third party’s placement of the ad, not because [of] Backpage profiting from the ad placement,” Bowman wrote in Friday’s ruling. “The whiff of illegality is detected only when considering the alleged content of the statements contained in the ads.”
But the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) smells more than a “whiff of illegality” where Backpage is concerned. The organization notes a 98 percent rise in reports of suspected child sex trafficking in the past five years, most of it online. Backpage is so closely tied to the sale of children for rape that the website is now the first place the center searches for missing children. In a 2016 amicus brief, the organization outlined the ways in which Backpage has been deliberately optimized to keep the child trafficking industry going, including having relaxed posting rules for escort ads while requiring other sellers to provide valid telephone numbers.
“This is a concerted effort to build a business enterprise around the trafficking of human beings,” Yiota Souras, general counsel for NCMEC, told the Independent.
Backpage executives could still face money laundering charges in Texas. But until lawmakers clarify the Communications Decency Act, it is unlikely prosecutors will prevail against the company.
“Congress has spoken on this matter, and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit,” Bowman said in his ruling.
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