Thursday night, the Department of Justice announced that Carl Ferrer, the co-founder and CEO of Backpage, a website frequently used to advertise sexual services such as escort work, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and money laundering. Ferrer agreed to forfeit and shut down Backpage and related entities, and could serve up to five years in prison.
Backpage.com also pleaded guilty to one count of Trafficking of Persons in Texas, according to court documents Motherboard obtained from the Texas Attorney General’s office.
While there were no charges for trafficking in the DOJ’s indictment of Backpage, trafficking is mentioned three times in the DOJ announcement of Ferrer’s guilty plea, all by officials who applauded the takedown of the site.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that Backpage “can no longer be used by criminals to promote and facilitate human trafficking.” First Assistant US Attorney Elizabeth A. Strange said that “Backpage has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking, placing profits over the well-being and safety of the many thousands of women and children who were victimized by its practices.” FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “sex trafficking will not be tolerated” whether “on the street or on the internet.”
A press release by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton calls Backpage “the largest online sex trafficking marketplace in the world,” and that it “facilitated the sex trafficking of innocent women and children.” This was part of the political narrative that Backpage was used to traffic minors: Supporters applauded President Donald Trump on Wednesday as he signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which advocates said would enable authorities to shut down “bad actors” like Backpage. The FBI seized Backpage before it was even signed into law.
The site was used as a poster-child for FOSTA that was framed as being a major step forward against sex trafficking but will harm (and has already begun to harm) consensual sex workers, as well as wider internet freedoms.
“There's no federal prostitution law, but US authorities can use trafficking law to hunt people down,” Laura Agustín, an author who’s studied the fields of sex work and trafficking for 20 years, told me in an email. Investigations can be done under federal human trafficking laws, while the actual charges are brought under state prostitution laws. “However, trafficking offences are hard to prosecute. Facilitating prostitution is easy. Thus the charges are made in states where prostitution is illegal.” Trafficking is often used as a “social justice facade,” she said.
Backpage acted as a lifeline for many sex workers, enabling them to vet their own clients and screen for bad dates. When it shuttered its adult services section in January 2017, sex workers spoke out about the necessity of online forums to their survival, too. Studies show that when sex workers have access to forums and advertising sites like Craigslist and Backpage, homicide rates go down. And even if there were instances of human trafficking on the site, law enforcement officials have said that taking down Backpage makes it harder for them to get tips and track down actual trafficking victims. Taking the site down, sex worker and rights advocates say, will only create more trafficking as workers are forced offline and into the street.