A federal grand jury in Arizona has indicted seven people behind the classified-ads website Backpage.com on 93 counts, including charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
The defendants include founders Michael Lacey, 69, and James Larkin, 68, as well as other shareholders and employees. The indictment accuses the executives of presenting Backpage as a site to advertise escort services while knowing that "the overwhelming majority of the website's ads involve prostitution." The indictment says the site made over $500 million in "prostitution-related revenue."
The website has long been known for its adult-services ads, some of which feature children.
"Many of the ads published on Backpage depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking," according to the indictment, which alleges that Backpage's "official policy, when presented with an ad featuring the prostitution of a child, was to delete the particular words in the ad denoting the child's age and then publish a revised version of the ad."
Backpage servers had been seized and shut down Friday in a raid by the Department of Justice, FBI, other federal agencies and attorneys general from California and Texas. The charges against Lacey, Larkin and others were unsealed on Monday. Larkin's lawyer Larry Kazan did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment.
The indictment is the first case of federal criminal charges against the people behind Backpage after years of scrutiny and controversy. Several young women and their families have over the years lost lawsuits against the classifieds website, accusing it of facilitating child sex trafficking.
As The Washington Post reports, "Backpage has argued that it assists law enforcement in tracking down victims and perpetrators of crimes, which some police officials have corroborated. ... Some in the sex worker industry say that removing Backpage from the internet takes away a safe mechanism for screening clients, and that the ads will simply move to sites outside the country, or to social media. "
Backpage has been in legal fights for years, but mostly in civil cases filed by young women and their families. In case after case against Backpage, the site's lawyers successfully argued the website was not responsible for its ads, citing a law that shields social media and other Internet platforms from liability for what users say or post online. The site had argued it simply hosted the ads.
The law, however, allows for federal criminal investigations. Plus, a major Senate investigation and a cache of discovered documents eventually suggested that Backpage was actively involved in the creating and editing of the sex ads, making the site a publisher that could be liable for its content. The alleged involvement included stripping the ads of code words such as "Lolita" or "new to town," which could indicate an underage girl.
Backpage.com had shut down its adult ad pages in January 2017. CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Lacey and Larkin had previously been charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, but a California judge rejected the charges. Lacey and Larkin are former executives of the New Times Media chain, which they sold off a few years ago.
Ferrer was subpoenaed to testify before the Senate in 2015, but he did not show up. He, Lacey and Larkin did appear before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2017, but they declined to answer questions, citing the First and Fifth Amendments.
The Supreme Court last year declined to hear an appeal against Backpage and its use of the Internet shield law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
In March, prompted by the Backpage saga, Congress changed Section 230 to allow more state and civil lawsuits against websites related to online sex trafficking, for "knowingly assisting, supporting or facilitating" crimes.
The legislation faced opposition from free-expression groups and some Internet companies that consider Section 230 the core pillar of the modern Internet and say the crimes will simply travel deeper into the dark Web. Sex workers also have argued that the bill would make people working in the industry less safe.
After the bill's passage, Craigslist shut down its personals section in the U.S. and Reddit announced policy changes.
NPR's Vanessa Romo contributed to this report.