Well, it looks like the bastards finally took down backpage.com.
I hate these website confiscation notices. The agencies involved always plaster their logos all over the damned thing, like they’re so proud of how they wrecked someone’s business, like a bunch of dogs pissing all over to mark their territory. It makes me sick.
The reaction from sex workers on Twitter is heartbreaking:
#backpage allowed me to feed myself and pay my rent, just a few days ago. Thank you, @KamalaHarris for pushing more of us over the edges and into situations where trafficking is a greater risk. #harmreductionnow #SESTA #FOSTA
— ~ f e r a l h u s s y ~ (@feralhussy) April 6, 2018
Backpage, TER US and EscortDesign all went down in the span of one day. I have friends who have lost their entire business today and don't know what to do. This is going to force a lot of people onto the street and into the arms of potentially violent clients.
— Hailey Heartless (@SadistHailey) April 7, 2018
(TER is TheEroticReview, a site that offers lists and reviews of escorts, which now has a message up that they are no longer serving content to U.S. visitors. EscortDesign is a service that I think created small websites for escorts…I can’t tell because they just have a blank page now.)
BTW, we've been through this enough times (though never at this scale) that we actually have data about what happens to sex workers when we lose access to advertising. Article from 2015.
SPOILER: We go back to less safe ways of working and some of us die.https://t.co/CfrXX1SOCe
— Liara Roux (@LiaraRoux) April 7, 2018
As I write this, the DOJ media site has no press release about any of this, but rumors and reports are flying. The FBI has reportedly raided the homes of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, two of the founders of Backpage, and Lacey has been arrested. I’ve heard reports of the FBI going into colo facilities to confiscate Backpage’s servers. Anti-trafficking activist Cindy McCain (wife of Senator John McCain) is claiming that the FBI has raided other Backpage offices as well. Lacey’s lawyer says the DOJ has a 93-count indictment, but the court is keeping that sealed, so we don’t know exactly what’s in it.
There’s a lot we still don’t know, but I’m going to go out on a limb and call this a giant steaming pile of bullshit. The most obvious bullshit is that the feds have already seized Backpage property and shut the whole business down. You don’t see this kind of thing with normal crimes. If a someone gets road rage and runs over three people with their Buick Regal, the cops don’t seize General Motors and arrest the board of directors. This attack on Backpage is law enforcement showboating. Prosecutors have been looking to drag down a deep-pockets defendant like this for years.
Before continuing, yes, I know I could be wrong. I could be very wrong. Maybe the Backpage honchos are truly bad people, master criminals, and all of Backpage is nothing more than a criminal enterprise they founded solely for the purpose of child sex trafficking. I should also remind the reader that I am not a lawyer, and I don’t know much about federal anti-trafficking law. I am not an authority and this is not analysis. This is wild-assed guesswork.
But…I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and I think I recognize some familiar patterns. So my purpose here is to make predictions that will allow me to test my cynicism against reality, when the truth eventually comes out, days or months from now.
So here’s what I think will happen:
Prediction 1: The relevant anti-child-sex-trafficking laws will not be about straightforward crimes. Grabbing children and pimping them out to pederasts is already all kinds of illegal: It is at least the crimes of kidnapping and rape. You don’t need specialized anti-child-sex-trafficking laws to put guys who do that in prison for a very long time. What you need specialized anti-child-sex-trafficking laws for is to take that core act of violence and smear culpability around until the prosecutor can indict someone exciting, maybe even someone with valuable assets to seize.
Prediction 2: The definition of sex trafficking will not be what most people are thinking when they hear “sex trafficking.” I say this because I know the history of anti-pimping laws, which often define pimping broadly enough to include anyone who receives money earned through prostitution, including drivers, landlords, website designers, and even babysitters. The Backpage trafficking indictments will probably include the trafficking version of that kind of thing.
Prediction 3: The majority of the counts in the indictment are not actually going to be about child sex trafficking. I think a lot of them will be crimes with what I like to think of as fictitious elements, such as “conspiracy” and “intent.” The prosecution is also going to be about adult consensual sex work and the usual smattering of federal add-on crimes, like money laundering or false statements, maybe with some wildcards like fraud. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the action is around these ancillary crimes rather than the flashy child sex trafficking that prosecutors are claiming they’re fighting.
Prediction 4: Most of the legal conflict over the trafficking charges will be about criminal intent. That some child sex traffickers advertised on Backpage seems almost certain — the site has carried millions of ads, after all — but those ads were almost certainly handled by low-level employees, if they were seen by humans at all. This is not something the executives would normally have done, and yet they are the ones arrested. I expect to see a lot of effort picking over evidence such as email messages in an attempt to tie the executives to specific ads.
Prediction 5: Attempts by Backpage employees to block sex trafficking ads will be used against them by prosecutors as proof that they were aware of trafficking. We’ve seen this kind of thing in drug enforcement, where a nightclub or motel owner takes steps to keep drug dealers out, and that becomes evidence that he was aware of drug dealing on the premises. I wouldn’t be surprised to see analogous measures by Backpage used to argue that the knew, or should have known, that something illegal was happening, and that they either helped it happen, allowed it to happen, or didn’t take adequate measures to prevent it from happening.
Prediction 6: Less than 20% of the charges will survive to end. If it goes through trial, make that less than 5%.
I am sure that some of these predictions are wrong. But this whole process just has a familiar feel to it…I’ll bet I got some of this right. I guess we’ll find out.