Legal pressure on embattled classified marketplace Backpage.com mounted Tuesday, with lawsuits in federal court in Arizona and Florida alleging the company conspired to facilitate child sex trafficking, building on the findings of a U.S. Senate inquiry last month.
Backpage.com has become known as one of the biggest web platforms for sex ads and prostitution since Craigslist closed down its “adult” section in 2010. Backpage has spent years fighting legal challenges, citing protections for websites provided by the Communications Decency Act. Hours after a recent report from a Senate subcommittee revealed details of the company’s business operations and how it handled advertisements, Backpage announced it was shuttering its sex advertising section, blaming “unconstitutional government censorship.” Service categories such as “escorts” and “body rubs” now appear with the word “censored” in red.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations reviewed over a million pages of internal documents it obtained from Backpage, including emails and policies related to its editing and moderating practices. The inquiry found that Backpage stripped advertisements of such terms as “Lolita” and “Amber Alert,” code words that the sex for sale was with underage girls and boys, then posted the sanitized advertisements.
The new complaints, filed by lawyers including renowned litigator David Boies, allege Backpage knowingly edited away evidence of child sex trafficking and created other sites and special protocols to stymie law enforcement efforts. Sex ads have simply shifted over to the “dating” section, Boies contends in court papers.
Boies, 75, has represented former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in litigation over the contested 2000 presidential election and ex-American International Group Inc. Chairman Maurice Greenberg in his lawsuit over AIG’s bailout. Boies’s clients in the Backpage.com cases, however, are an Arizona shelter for victims of sex trafficking and domestic abuse, a Florida anti-trafficking group, and a woman under the name Jane Doe. His law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, is working with Legal Momentum–The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. They said the complaints were filed Tuesday (the filings couldn’t be immediately confirmed in court records).
Liz McDougall of Backpage.com declined to comment, saying she has yet to see the complaints.
“Backpage helped create ads offering children and others for commercial sex in violation of numerous state and federal statutes,” Boies alleged.
In the Arizona complaint, the lawyers describe how Backpage allegedly facilitated trafficking through other websites it created, including BigCity.com, which increased the efficiency and demand for advertisers. On these sites, which aggregate sex ads, Backpage stripped metadata from photographs, thwarting attempts by family members and law enforcement to search the images, the plaintiffs alleged.
Backpage is already fighting similar litigation, including a lawsuit in Washington State set for trial later this year. In California, Backpage Chief Executive Officer Carl Ferrer, as well as former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, have been charged with conspiracy to commit pimping and money laundering. They have denied any wrongdoing.