The CEO of Backpage.com is contesting criminal pimping charges filed against him in California, citing federal law that shields online publishers from liability for content posted by their users.
Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested earlier this month in Houston in relation to charges including pimping a minor and conspiracy to commit pimping. Two men named by California authorities as controlling shareholders of the site's parent company, James Larkin and Michael Lacey, were also charged, and "booked into the Sacramento County jail and paraded in front of the press in orange jump suits last week," the two said in statement.
Ferrer was released on bail late last week and Lacey and Larkin were released on bail after being held for four days. Despite being described by the Attorney General's office as controlling shareholders, their lawyers said on Wednesday in a court filing that the two "no longer own interests in Backpage.com and haven’t for almost two years."
Prosecuting the people behind Backpage, an online classifieds site primarily used by escorts and other sex workers, is "legally barred under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as the Attorney General seeks to hold an online publisher of third-party speech criminally liable," their lawyers said in the same filing.
In 2010, Craigslist abandoned adult classifieds, under pressure from law enforcement officials and politicians who described its escort ads as solicitations for prostitution. Since then, Backpage, which was a part of Village Voice Media until the businesses were separated in 2012, became the leader in adult classified ads and a frequent target of law enforcement complaints.
California state Attorney General Kamala Harris described the site as a conduit for sex trafficking and even of trafficking children into sex work, although the actual charges brought were for pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy to commit pimping.
Backpage's defense rests in part on a provision of the federal Communications Decency Act. The act says websites "cannot be held liable for publishing content submitted by users or for failing to block or remove such content, notwithstanding any allegations that it knew or should have known the content concerned unlawful conduct," the accused's lawyers said in a letter to Harris released on Monday.
This argument has been successfully used in courts across the country. Last year, a federal judge in Massachusetts dismissed a suit by anonymous plaintiffs who said they had been "molested and repeatedly raped" by men who found them on Backpage. Two of them were under 18 when they had been allegedly pimped.
"The allegedly sordid practices of Backpage... amount to neither affirmative participation in an illegal venture nor active web content creation," the judge said in his decision. "The existence of an escorts section in a classified ad service, whatever its social merits, is not illegal."
In the past, authorities have agreed that sites like Backpage are shielded by federal law. In 2013, a group of state attorneys general asked Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act because it had been "been broadly interpreted to provide criminal and civil immunity to internet content providers, even if the intention of those providers is to profit from illegal activity."
Backpage says it has some content moderation features that screen out illegal activities and that it reports suspected child sex trafficking to authorities. But law enforcement officials, including the California attorney general, have argued these features are insufficient and that child sex trafficking is rampant on the site, to the profit of the company.
The attorney general's office said that 99% of the company's revenue over roughly a two-year period was "was directly attributable to the ‘adult’ section."