Sunday, October 09, 2016

Backpage.com, Human Trafficking, and Free Speech

Charges Against Backpage

Earlier this week the states of Texas and California worked together to have the CEO of Backpage.com arrested. The charges were brought in California, who issued the arrest warrant for CEO Carl Ferrer, who was then arrested in Texas. The cause of the arrest was that by running a website that profited heavily from the sale of sexual services, through the "escort" section of his website, Backpage was profiting from prostitution and human trafficking. 

The Dallas AG's press conference regarding the arrest is here:

Dallas was a good venue, because the company's headquarters are actually in Dallas, Texas.  The CEO was arrested at the airport as he returned from an international trip.

Kamala Harris, the California Attorney General, shares her announcement here:


California brought the charges primarily because Backpage.com made more money on their escort services from selling women and children in California than in other states.  In addition to charging CEO Carl Ferrer, California brings charges against controlling stock-holders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin.  Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin are charged with operating a "Pimping Conspiracy" from 2010 through 2016.   Among the specific charges brought in the 9 page Criminal Complaint against Backpage.com are that although most sections of Backpage.com are free -- there is no charge to post an advertisement there -- the Escort service DOES charge to place ads, and in California, these ads generate more than $2 Million PER MONTH in profits just in the state of California.  Yes, ALMOST ALL of the revenue for Backpage.com is generated by its ads for escort services!

Furthering the conspiracy, however, is the fact that the same trio also operate other prostitution-oriented websites, EvilEmpire.com, an "escort directory service" and BigCity.com, an app for android and iPhone that provides profiles of those listed on EvilEmpire. (EvilEmpire currently has 1300 profiles claiming to be in Birmingham, Alabama!)   

The California charges then go on to include several violations of California Penal Code section 266h(b)(2), Pimping a Minor Under 16 Years of Age, and several additional violations of 266h(b)(2)/664, "Attempted" Pimping of a Minor Under 16.

Backpage and Law Enforcement

I've met the Backpage lawyer featured in this Anderson Cooper video. She used to defend CraigsLists adult services. She was at a law enforcement conference I attended in Singapore, and she said she was there to try to build law enforcement contacts because they wanted to be "the best ally possible" for law enforcement:



In 2011, Backpage received a letter signed by 46 Attorneys General asking Backpage to clarify 20 points of contention with regards to its advertising, monitoring of, and profiting from, the advertisement of prostitution.


The letter also mentions that CEO Carl Ferrer told Washington's Attorney General that at that time they were removing around 400 advertisements per month on suspicion that they involved underage minors.

Backpage and Freedom of Speech

The website has already been hit with a federal lawsuit -- but then the lawsuit was dismissed, and on appeal, it is clear that the "Freedom of Speech" crowd is pro-Human Trafficking.

Here is how the judge who heard the appeal opened her 37 page judgement:

"This is a hard case — hard not in the sense that the legal issues defy resolution, but hard in the sense that the law requires that we, like the court below, deny relief to plaintiffs whose circumstances evoke outrage. The result we must reach is rooted in positive law. Congress addressed the right to publish the speech of others in the Information Age when it enacted the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA). See 47 U.S.C. § 230. Congress later addressed the need to guard against the evils of sex trafficking when it enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), codified as relevant here at 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591, 1595. These laudablelegislative efforts do not fit together seamlessly, and this case reflects the tension between them. Striking the balance in a way that we believe is consistent with both congressional intent and the teachings of precedent, we affirm the district court's order of dismissal. The tale follows. . . "

The law that makes this all legal, from the Federal side, is "47 U.S.C. § 230" which is the law that protects websites from being responsible for the things that third parties post on their servers. The full judgment in that lawsuit is here:


The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the CDT (Center for Democracy and Technology) both argued in favor of Backpage in amicus briefs, and Forbes magazine foolishly went along with their headline "Big Win For Free Speech Online In Backpage Lawsuit" -- (click image for story)


http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericgoldman/2016/03/17/big-win-for-free-speech-online-in-backpage-lawsuit/

So "Free Speech" wins and our young woman get trafficked. I'm shocked that Forbes finds this a thing to celebrate!

Federal Responses to BackPage CEO Arrest

One of the champions against Human Trafficking on Capital Hill is Congresswoman Ann Wagner from the 2nd District of Missouri.  She is the sponsor of the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act (SAVE Act).  In many ways you could say the SAVE Act was written in response to Backpage.com.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vZAaOClo0M
 Wagner's SAVE Act became law with the passage of Senate Bill 178 - Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, when it was signed by President Obama on May 29, 2015.  What her section of the law does is just adds the word "Advertising" to an existing law, 18 U.S. Code § 1591 - Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion.



We'll have to wait to see whether this new language gets used in Federal court sometime soon.  In this case, the big question with regards to 18 USC Section 1591 would be "who did the advertising?"  We already know that BackPages will say they are a neutral third part who allows OTHERS to advertise.

Senator Porter is also leading the charge from the Senate side.  In November 2015 he held hearings about Backpage and subpoenaed CEO Carl Ferrer to appear before the commitee.  When Ferrer refused, Contempts charges were filed against him (with a 96-0 vote in the Senate to sustain the charges.)  In his Senate Report about BackPage.com, he points out that in 2013, 80% of all revenue from advertising escort services in the United States was believed to have been generated by Backpage.com, and that according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 71% of the alerts they receive from members of the public about possible sex trafficking of underage persons has a Backpage.com nexus.  The report also points out that American Express, Visa, and MasterCard refuse to allow their cards to do business with Backpage.com, due to their illegal or "brand damaging" activities.  Although Backpage claims that 120 of its 180 employees do nothing but edit and filter ads on the site, NCMEC has documented 400 cases in 47 states of children being trafficked via Backpage.com.


(196 report from Portman/McCaskill)
Although the main body of the report is only 33 pages, the 196 page report from Senators Porter and McCaskill contains a great deal of additional interesting reading, if this is a topic of interest.  One document that is cited second-hand is a report by researcher Danah Boyd called "Combating Sexual Exploitation Online: Focus on the Networks of People, not the Technology."  I agree, focusing on the people is a key, but does that mean we continue to allow our children to be advertised in the meantime?

 Statements issued after the Arrest of Backpage.com's CEO:

 One Example Sex Trafficking Case 

https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/ice-investigation-results-17-sex-trafficking-indictments-minnesota

In this case, announced 05OCT2016, a group smuggled sex workers in from Thailand to the United States and kept each woman confined in a house of prostitution until they were able to pay off their "bondage debt" of between $40,000 and $60,000.  Hundreds of women were held in this way.  Each "house manager" would choose the best way to advertise the women, but many chose the websites backpage.com and eros.com.

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