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Law Enforcement Agencies Shutdown Backpage.com For Alleged Sex Trafficking

State and federal authorities recently seized Backpage.com which is an online classifieds site that has been frequently accused of facilitating sex trafficking. According to reports, seven people have been indicted and a notice posted on the website says the site has been seized by the FBI and other agencies. It has been reported that the enforcement action was the result of a collaborative effort between the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service, IRS criminal division, the Department of Justice’s child exploitation and obscenity division, as well as Attorney General’s offices from Arizona, California, and Texas. The Justice Department has stated that seven people have been charged in a 93-count indictment with crimes related to prostitution and money laundering. According to CBS News, the indictment names 17 victims, both adults and children, who were allegedly victims of trafficking facilitated by the site.

The enforcement action was initiated when FBI raided the homes of Backpage.com founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin after a federal grand jury had been convened in Arizona to hear evidence against Backpage last year. President Trump is expected to sign a new anti-sex-trafficking bill that has already passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support and this action could be a precursor of things to come. Initially the anti-sex trafficking bill was deemed controversial as it modifies a key component of internet law which helps protect IT companies from liability for user-generated content on their platforms. This law had helped prevent an previous civil or criminal actions against Backpage.com and is known as the Communications Decency Act. The proposed anti-trafficking bill creates an exception for sites that facilitate or support online sex trafficking knowingly. Furthermore, it enables states and victims to bring criminal and civil action against websites like Backpage.com.

Tech companies, free speech advocates, and sex workers have opposed this bill and online forums such as Craigslist’s personal section and Reddit sections like Escorts and Sugar Daddies have already shut down in order to avoid any liability. However, certain advocates for sex workers have stated their apprehensions that closures of such forums will in effect endangers sex workers who rely on such sites to conduct their business. It seems the Communications Decency Act did not apply to the FBI in this particular action. Conservative politicians like Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have praised the action taken against Backpage saying it was long overdue. In a Senate report published last year it was alleged that Backpage.com facilitated sex trafficking online by coaching customers on how to post clean ads for their illegal activities. Sensitive words like Lolita, little girl, etc. were deliberately hidden from ads to camouflage their illegal nature.

So, now the question is if online forums or sites like Backpage.com are proponents of free speech or are they facilitators of Human Trafficking? Certain points to note in this regard are:

  • Craigslist, Reddit, and other sites have shut down personals forums.
  • IT companies can potentially either stop moderating or censoring content thereby opening the door to further attacks on Section 230.
  • A Backlash against IT giants was the catalyst in the passage of the bill.

If you or a loved one has been accused of an online sex offense, it is imperative to retain the services of a criminal defense attorney to help protect your rights and your reputation.

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