On Friday, visitors to backpage.com, a website for classified ads, were greeted with a message notifying them that the site had been seized by several US federal agencies, including the FBI, Postal Inspection Service, and IRS Criminal Investigation Division.
The note also said the investigation was being aided by the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, as well as US attorney general offices in Arizona and California. The notice was posted to the site several hours after the Arizona home of its co-founder, Michael Lacey, was raided.
Although Backpage hosted listings for everything from apartments to escorts, a California Department of Justice report found that more than 90 percent of its $135 million in revenue was derived from adult ads. This has made the site the subject of litigation for years, although problems for the site intensified in 2016 when a Senate subcommittee launched an investigation into the site’s role in child sex-trafficking.
According to the Washington Post, the subcommittee report found that Backpage had modified ads to remove references to children while allowing the ads to remain on the site. Backpage denied its role in child prostitution and said it reported all such instances to law enforcement authorities when they were found.
In 2016, the Dallas office of Backpage was raided and its CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested on charges of pimping a minor. The charges against Ferrer were eventually dismissed on the grounds that web publishers cannot be held responsible for content published by third parties on their website under the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
In January 2017, the Supreme Court refused to revive a lawsuit filed by three women that claimed the site was used to facilitate their forced prostitution. Shortly thereafter, however, the company pulled all of its adult ads in response to the findings from the Senate subcommittee and called the move unconstitutional censorship by the government.
Last month, the US Congress passed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. This bill undermines the Communications Decency Act by holding web publishers accountable for what people say and do on their platforms, ostensibly in the name of fighting human trafficking. The bill was widely condemned by sex workers, who said the bill destroyed the distinction between consensual sex work and human trafficking, as well as free speech activists, who said the bill crushed freedom of expression on the internet.
FOSTA is still awaiting a signature from President Trump, although a number of sites, including a Furry dating site and the Craigslist personals section, shut down their pages proactively. It is unclear what new developments prompted the raid of Lacey’s home and the seizure of backpage.com, although its possible that passage of FOSTA has emboldened law enforcement officers to take action against the site.
Motherboard contacted the US Department of Justice for more information and will update this post when we hear back.