US Seizes Backpage.com, a Site Accused of Enabling Prostitution

US Seizes Backpage.com, a Site Accused of Enabling Prostitution

The website Backpage.com has been under investigation for several years amid allegations it was used to facilitate prostitution and money laundering.

The Justice Department said late on Friday that a court in Arizona ruled the case remains sealed, which puts any legal information under wraps. Viewed narrowly, the bill allows victims of sex trafficking to sue websites that "enable" their abuse, but it raises a unsafe precedent for suing websites over user-generated content. In the posting about the seizure, the department had originally said more information would be made public on Friday evening. The Phoenix newspaper said the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed "law-enforcement activity" at the home of Backpage founder Michael Lacey, and it reported similar activity at the home of Jim Larkin, another founder of the site. But Sen. Heidi Heitkamp celebrated the action, saying, "Today, Backpage was shut down".

The Senate investigation led to a bill - known as FOSTA, for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act - that passed both houses of Congress last month.

"While this action is long overdue, it is a positive step forward in our efforts to hold accountable sex traffickers that sell women and children online", said a statement from Portman.

Visitors to the site and its Canadian version backpage.ca were shown a notice by various federal agencies declaring they had seized the domain. The law has been scrutinized for its potential First Amendment infringements, though it has not yet been signed into law by President Donald Trump.

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There would be "a dramatic shift in the marketplace starting tonight", he added.

Backpage has affiliates across the country and around the world, and by 2014 brought in annual revenue of US$135 million, The New York Times has reported. But until Friday the website had continued to operate, shielded by free speech protections.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently testified before Congress that almost three-quarters of the cases it has reviewed are linked to ads on Backpage. They say this legislation has conflated sex trafficking with sex work.

In 2016, Backpage's CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested in Houston on pimping charges, states NPR; they were later dismissed.

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