The History of Backpage Part II

This page was last edited May 24, 2018.

Craig killed his adult section last night in all US markets, it is an opportunity for us.
— Carl Ferrer, Backpage CEO, email to employees
 Backpage logo 2011. Image courtesy of  Bitcoin.com.

Backpage logo 2011. Image courtesy of Bitcoin.com.

Backpage Empire (2011-2017)

The second part will detail Backpage's fierce reign. 

The Not So Golden Years

After Craigslist bitched out, Backpage was now crowned supreme ruler of adult classifieds nationwide in the USA. A whopping 80 percent of online sex ads would soon be hosted by Backpage. The online classifieds generated millions for the owners, Village Voice Media; however, their classifieds would also become a major destination for child sex trafficking.

Backpage's adult listings. 2013. Wayback Machine.

TIMELINE

By 2012, Backpage had endured four legal disputes. In 2013, Backpage helped with the seventh and largest trafficking raid titled Operation Cross Country. In 2016, Backpage had an estimated 2 million visitors per day. 

Read More
Online & Anonymous: New Challenges to Online Trafficking

CRACKER

Backpage would later serve 869 cities in total globally. Countries such as Germany, Ireland, Italy, etc. could now use the online classifieds. Backpage would further their global reach by creating sister site, Cracker. This would become a popular classifieds in Australia, Dubai and Hong Kong. 

Cracker Classifieds. Image courtesy of NOTCY Social Network

Lacey (one owner of BP), actually cared about doing good journalism. He’s the kind of guy who likes saying fuck you to people in power.
— former Village Voice Media employee

the warrior, undefeated

Throughout the years of 2011-2017, Backpage would go through numerous legal difficulties while still rising. Craigslist was easily convinced by lawmakers, but Backpage wouldn't be so quick to back down. With the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Backpage would vigorously fight back against online government censorship. 

 

 

Village Voice Media Under Pressure

We share the opinion of the nation’s 51 Attorneys General that the best way to eradicate your company’s connection with the sex trafficking of minors is to shut down the Adult section of your website, as Craigslist did.
— Groundswell demanding VVM to stop adult ads

In September 2010, after Craigslist tore down its adult services advertisements, Village Voice Media was now dealing with the heavy pressure to remove their adult ads from the government and various organizations. Even celebrities. 

Backpage.com has stringent safeguards in place to ensure that only adults use the site. We provided the FBI with the perpetrator’s I.P. address and credit-card information.
— Steve Suskin, Village Voice Media

VVM pointed out that, in addition to cooperating with sting operations and promptly responding to subpoenas, the company uses aggressive content moderation and content filtration. They also worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop logarithmic screens that filter terms that propose illegal transactions.

Liz McDougal, former attorney of Village Voice Media, said that Backpage was "a critical ally in stopping human trafficking online."

Read More
Village Voice Media Pressured to Drop Backpage

Backpage.com, VVM Helped FBI Catch Child Predator

Village Voice Media Breaks

Meanwhile, the anonymously run website, “Village Voice Pimps,” uses the most sensationalist language it can muster, along with personal attacks and dossiers on Village Voice writers and editors who have nothing to do with the parent company, Village Voice Media’s advertising supplement.
— Douglas Rushkoff, CNN

In 2012, VVM finally cut off ties to Backpage. During this time, Backpage was now considered the 'online sex trafficking brothel'.

Village Voice Pimps was an anti-trafficking group mocking the company with an anonymous website. AT&T, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and IHOP stopped all of their advertisements with VVM since they were associated with Backpage. Even celebrities such as Alicia Keys was horrified with VVM's association with the infamous Backpage. 

Mike Lacey & Jim Larkin, Village Voice Media controlling shareholders, would now operate Backpage as a separate entity far away from VVM.

We have always had a very libertarian approach to advertising. Classifieds represented 30 to 35 percent of business. We don’t ban cigarettes, we take adult advertising. We take ads that sell guns.
— Jim Larkin, owner of Backpage
 Image courtesy of  Deccan Chronicle

Image courtesy of Deccan Chronicle

In 2014, three girls sued Backpage for the sexual abuse that they suffered while they were trafficked and advertised on the website. Two of the Does were underage. These incidents happened in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One Doe was raped more than a thousand times and advertised 300 times on Backpage, and another Doe endured 900 rapes. The Does testified that Backpage deceived law enforcement and, 

It’s not Backpage’s job to police, it’s the police’s job to police.
— CDA 230 Protects BP from Liability

“implemented and perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”

The Does lost due to Backpage's protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Read More
Doe v. Backpage
The Most Important Law Protecting Internet Speech

Forbidden Terms

In 2009, Backpage developed an automatic filtering system, The Strip Term From Ad filter. It would delete forbidden terms that suggested any illegal activity such as prostitution and sex trafficking. Terms included lolita, young, teen, rape, fresh faced, dollar sign symbols, etc. According to a report, the automatic filter seemed to have stopped being used somewhere in 2012. 

After 2012, Backpage presented a more consumer friendly approach to moderation for their adult classifieds. Ads would be rejected entirely if it contained any forbidden terms, but it wouldn't remove an ad altogether. If a user tried to use the word young in an ad, the user would get an error message such as, "Sorry. The term young is banned," and this would let the user edit & remove any forbidden terms themselves.

Note: Backpage's ad moderation is continuously shined in the media as their part of 'helping pimps/traffickers sanitize their advertisements'. However, all who advertised via Backpage, even consensual sex workers, had their ads moderated the same. Backpage's moderation tactics weren't exclusively designed to facilitate human trafficking.

Now, fast forward to 2017, Backpage was accused of manually editing their ads. If these allegations were indeed true, then this means that Backpage could potentially lose their protection from CDA 230 altogether. They're now accountable for the new content they created from their editing. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains here.

Read More
Backpage Report 01.10.2017

Credit Cards Cease 

 Credit cards lol. Image courtesy of  Compare Cards.

Credit cards lol. Image courtesy of Compare Cards.

In 2015, major credit card companies ceased all transactions via Backpage after receiving a letter from a sheriff, Tom Dart, demanding that they stop any payments to Backpage. Visa & Mastercard withdrew days after Dart's threat. Backpage vs. Dart would soon arise.

Backpage vs. Dart

Sheriff’s letters to Visa and MasterCard demanding that they stop doing business with Backpage.com violate the First Amendment
— Eugene Volokh, The Washington Post

A case involving a Cook County sheriff, Tom Dart, wanted to end all credit card transactions to Backpage. This would include purchases for legal services. Dart had tried to sue Craigslist in the past over their adult section as well, but he failed. So, after his failure with Craigslist, he now focused on Backpage. Dart was determined to take down BP's adult services. 

Backpage shot back with legal action stating that Dart was violating the First Amendment, and that he was also using his legal authority to eliminate their protection of speech. Backpage won the case. A three-panel judge declared,

"a public official trying to shut down an avenue of expression of ideas and opinions through 'actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction' is violating the First Amendment."

Dart even tried to convince the judge that his letter was protected with the First Amendment since he reported to the banks as private individual and not as a public authority. The judge shut down Dart with, 

"The letter is on stationery captioned “Office of the Sheriff,” and begins: “As the Sheriff of Cook County, a father and a caring citizen, I write to request that your institution immediately cease and desist from allowing your credit cards to be used to place ads on websites like Backpage.com.” Notice that he is sheriff first, father and citizen second; notice his use of the legal term “cease and desist”.

UNDERGROUND

Although Backpage succeeded with Backpage vs. Dart, credit card companies had already ceased all transactions within Backpage. Now, the owners would have to implement a new way of payment for advertisers.

Read More
Sheriff's Letters Violate the First Amendment

Sheriff Dart, Meet the First Amendment

We don’t need Visa and MasterCard to play nanny for online speech. Payment processors and banks shouldn’t be in the position of deciding what type of online content is criminal or enforcing morality for the rest of society. 
— Rainey Reitman, Director of Activism at Electronic Frontier Foundation

Banks and Criminal Content

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) always voiced their support for Backpage in regards to free speech via the internet. Rainey Reitman, director of activism, voiced her opinion over the credit card situation in favor of Backpage. She further went on to say, 

“Backpage.com can be used to sell an old refrigerator, find a new apartment, post about new community workshops, find a job, and offer many other services and goods. It also hosts an “adult” section of the site, where some people advertise escort services or try to connect with people who have similar sexual interests. This “adult” section requires visitors to confirm they are at least 18 years of age and allows users to get resources for reporting cases of suspected sexual exploitation with one click.”

Read More
Backpage Execs Arrested Since Pimping Isn't Free Speech

Bitcoin & Credits

With credit cards no longer an option for payment, this meant that Backpage would have to pursue underground techniques for payment. Bitcoin was introduced. It's a cryptocurrency with a high chance of being untraceable to its buyer. Advertisers could receive bitcoin by purchasing a gift card, and trading their gift card for bitcoins on websites such as Paxful. Prepaid cards such as Netspend could also be used for payment.

 Backpage's introduction of credits. Image courtesy of Wayback Machine.

Backpage's introduction of credits. Image courtesy of Wayback Machine.

So we can’t use visa or MasterCard anymore to pay for our ads, what a pity. Pity because law enforcement could trace anyone using a credit card when posting an ad. Instead backpage is only accepting bitcoin now, Any pimp using bitcoin is IMPOSSIBLE to trace. 
— Sandra Blu, British escort
 Backpage's choices of payment. Image courtesy of Reddit.

Backpage's choices of payment. Image courtesy of Reddit.

Read More
Credit Card Companies Abandon Backpage.com

 

 

Houston Hold Up

 Image courtesy of  Newser.

Image courtesy of Newser.

In 2016, after returning from Amsterdam, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, was arrested in Houston's George Intercontinental Airport. His charges: pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy to commit pimping. 

From their (owners of BP) perspective, the claims of their opponents are wildly exaggerated and all the money being spent trying to wipe out advertising would be better spent on the root causes of the problem, including drug addiction, poverty and family abuse.
— Audrey Ferrence, The L Magazine

A three-year investigation found that numerous Backpage adult escort adverts had sex trafficking victims, including minors. Back in 2012, Ferrer & Lacey claimed that they were co-operating with authorities to help prosecute those condoning illegal activities. 

Backpage's terms & conditions stated, "posting any material on the site that in any way constitutes or assists in human trafficking" isn't allowed and users must abide by local laws; futhermore, Backpage had a community flagging system. Multiple users would flag any ad with malicious intent. 

Backpage 2014 disclaimer "report suspected exploitation of minors and/or human trafficking" emphasized. Image courtesy of Wayback Machine.

Despite the arrest, Backpage continued to stay online.

Read More
Digital Pimps or Fearless Publishers?

carl against congress

Carl Ferrer would go on to become the first person in 20 years to be found in contempt of US Congress.

Ferrer was to answer questions over allegations of Backpage being responsible for almost three-quarters of all reported child sex trafficking ads and forced prostitution.

He refused to attend.

  Image courtesy of  The Register

 Image courtesy of The Register

 Backpage adult services censored. Image courtesy of  The Boston Herald.

Backpage adult services censored. Image courtesy of The Boston Herald.

A fierce standard-bearer in the war over online free speech, wrapping its business model in the First Amendment to fend off enemies in law enforcement and government.
— Bloomberg Businessweek detailing Backpage's bold fight

On January 9, 2017, Backpage shut down their adult classifieds. After years of fighting back with the government to prevent online censorship, Backpage now censored their most prominent classifieds. The credit card situation was one way to collapse the Backpage empire. Now, the shutdown of their adult ads was simply more fuel being added to the fire. 

sex worker soliloqy

Along with Backpage, the digital age also brought in social media. Many sex workers were using social media for promoting. However, now those that used Backpage, would also use this platform to voice their concerning thoughts about the censorship to their audience.  

#facts

Advertising does not create trafficking. Ending advertising will not stop it.
— Audrey Ferrence, The L Magazine

LAW ENFORCEMENT

Billy Renfro, a detective from Bremerton Police had his woes about the adult shutdown. "The unfortunate thing about that is Backpage has worked really well with law enforcement. I did a search warrant a couple weeks ago and the response from Backpage was very rapid, " he stated. Renfro wasn't alone since numerous working in law enforcement used Backpage to investigate sex related crimes. 

Read More
Backpage Shuts Down Adult Section

 Backpage adult censored.  Court House News.

Backpage adult censored. Court House News.

 

The End is Near

Despite the censorship, Backpage still reigned as the go-to for adult classifieds. Its sovereignty wouldn't remain for long, and those who relied on the empire would hang on until the very end of its collapse. 

 Image courtesy of  Above Top Secret.

Image courtesy of Above Top Secret.