What really happened to backpage.com?
Rewind to 2017 and backpage.com was the ‘go to’ escort advertising site for sex workers around the world. From Boston to Bangkok, Manchester to Manila, Backpage’s escort listings were the dominant domain for clients and companions looking to connect. But by the spring of 2018 Backpage’s adult listings had disappeared, and shortly after, the site (and its sister sites, such as Cracker) was closed down altogether, with stark FBI notifications in their place, detailing the seizure of all sites affiliated with the once central sex classifieds.
As popular and widespread as Backpage was, its fame wasn’t gained through innovation or style. The site was a simple and old-fashioned classifieds listings board, hugely similar to its longstanding rival, Craigslist. Like Craigslist, Backpage was a throwback to print classifieds that often existed on the back pages of weekly newspapers and monthly magazines, which themselves had been the go-to advertising space for adult services in much of the 80s and 90’s, pre-internet era.
Backpage’s clashes with various US senators and law enforcement groups had been common knowledge, seen publicly through a number of high-profile lawsuits, national and international media stories, and even in the Netflix screened documentary, ‘I am Jane Doe’ (1). But it still came as a big surprise to see this hugely popular escort site close its doors in an instance, and even more shocking, were the set of highly controversial law changes which followed; having an immense impact on sex workers around the world.
New Times (and new enemies) in Arizona
The early beginnings of Backpage can be traced back to 1977, when students Michael Lacey and James Larkin began writing for New Times, an alt weekly in Arizona, USA. Their passion for journalism grew, as did their ambitions for the paper itself, and before long they had managed to seize control and ownership of the publication, and set about creating their alternative news media empire.
Although their initial focus was to develop their brand of investigative journalism, they soon developed a strong understanding of revenue growth, with a strategy built around the paper’s classifieds section. Lacey and Larkin realized that switching the publication’s policy of selling single page ads, to growing the classifieds section, and being able to sell multiple lower fee ads per page, could quickly increase the income and profitability of the business. This strategy proved ingenious, and the pair not only grew the income of New Times, but also went on to buy out several other struggling weekly papers around the country, growing their influence from Arizona to Colorado, Texas, and Florida. Each new publication copied this new, classifieds focussed revenue model and each one swiftly became a profitable venture.
While a page of big retail ads might net $1,000, a page of classifieds, 100 ads at $25 a pop, could bring in $2,500. (2)
Despite creating a strong, scalable, financial model, Lacey and Larkin began to re-invest their new found advertising wealth back into their content, pushing for to find high profile exposés and stories that uncovered dark secrets and collusions between politicians, political parties, and big corporations. They began hiring seasoned and well-respected reporters, afford them healthy budgets for investigative journalism, and quickly grew a reputation for challenging the government and ruffling the feathers of some of American’s most powerful politicians and influential tycoons.
The month after 9/11, for instance, The New Times Broward-Palm Beach published an exposé on how lapses in federal immigration policy had allowed the hijackers to enter the country. In 2003, Westword got the scoop on a sexual assault scandal at the US Air Force Academy. In 2013, The Miami New Times ran a story on the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball, which resulted in the suspension of 14 players. (2)
The New Times Media Group, and Lacey and Larkin in particular, were swiftly on the radar of a number of senators and those high up in government. Perhaps their most notable adversaries at this point were the Arizona based McCaine family, with John (the US senator for Arizona) and Cindy (the daughter of wealthy Beer Tycoon), victims of a number of stories and exposés led by New Times. The gung-ho approach of the New Times Group’s reporting led to a bombardment of lawsuits and legal challenges, but such was the success of their classifieds based revenue model, and fast cross-country expansion, they saw off every legal challenge without breaking stride. They continued to grow their dominant grip on the alt weekly scene, as well as their reputation for stories which dug up dirt on some of the country’s most aspirational leaders and prominent politicians.
"I wasn't affected that much [by the closure of Backpage] because I was new at the time. But I know from some friends who use the site for a long time, they relied heavily on Backpage, and because of it they didn’t need to work on the streets."
A walk on the Wildside
By the end of the 80’s, it was clear that the stability and growth of the New Times Group depended massively on their dominance in local classifieds advertising (which by now made up the vast majority of their income), and moreover, it was adult ads which made up the lion’s share of that revenue, dominating back page ads in almost every one of their regional papers. So, in 1989, they launched an adult specific section for each publication, branded ‘Wildside’. This new, spicy, adults only section was moderated in order to block obvious ads offering sex for money, but clear codewords fell into place and it quickly grew in popularity with sex workers across a number of cities in the US.
By 2001, the New Times Group owned 11 regional papers which generated over $100 Million in revenue, however, by now a popular online classifieds site in San Francisco, called Craigslist, had begun expanding to cover other regions and was also gaining a reputation for its own racy adult ads. By 2003 the growth and popularity of Craigslist was coinciding with a decline in revenue for Lacey and Larkin’s news group, and they decided to create an online classifieds site of their own. Using the help of Carl Ferrer, an ad salesman with a wealth of experience in classified advertising, they launched backpage.com in 2004.
Backpage.com wasn’t an instant hit, but it did show some promise, and its growth was notably aided by the group’s acquisition of The Village Voice, the largest alt weekly in the USA, and a paper which rivalled New Times for its reputation of exposing government wrong-doing and corruption. The Village Voice became the jewel in the crown of the New Times Group, and it helped to propel their online classifieds to reach new areas, including New York City and its infamous sex work scene.
The beginning of the end
Backpage.com managed to stem the fall in New Times Group’s revenue, and was being noticed as a serious competitor to Craigslist, within the sex work community at least. By midway through the 2010’s both Backpage and Craigslist were fast expanding overseas, with Craigslist quickly becoming the largest online classifieds site in the world. However, back home in the USA, several legal investigations were beginning to seriously explore what roles such online classifieds were playing in sex trafficking. At this point, it was Craigslist at the centre of many such reports and accusations.
Revenue at Backpage increased to $135 million in 2014 from $5.3 million in 2008, according to a Senate report last year. More than 90 percent of the earnings came from adult ads. (6)
By 2008, Craigslist was getting so much unwanted media attention for their adult ads, they began hiring legal experts to work as ad moderators, and introduced a system where anyone placing adult ads needed to verify their phone number and pay a fee by credit card. This didn’t ease up the pressure of looming legal challenges and in 2010 Craigslist abruptly closed its Erotic Services section. The removal of its adult section didn’t completely stop adult service providers from advertising on craigslist, as many creatively turned to other sections of the site to offer up their services (the ’casual encounters’ dating section became a hotbed for escort ads on Craigslist). But as Craigslist did their best to discourage adult advertisers, new sites began to take the limelight, including specialist escort sites, such as MyRedBook and RentBoy, however, it was Backpage.com which took over as the market leader.
When Craigslist cracked down on its "erotic services" category in 2010, Backpage picked up the slack. Posting in most sections of Backpage was free, but the site charged for adult ads. (8)
As the scene switched its main focus to Backpage, so did the FBI. Yet, unlike the CEOs of Craigslist, Lacey and Larkin had no intentions of caving to legal pressures and closed their adult sections. Not only did they have the funds to take on any legal challenges, they also knew they had the law on their side, and in particular, section 230 of the communications decency act. Backpage stood their ground, but lines of communication were opened between the site and US law enforcement. Eventually compromises were made, as Backpage introduced a number of rules and measures to tackle issues of trafficking, underage use, and other illegal activity.
By late January 2011, Backpage had implemented many of the [FBI’s] recommendations: It had banned photographs with nudity, drawn up a list of "inappropriate terms," beefed up its vetting process, and begun referring "ads containing possible minors" directly to [FBI] staff. (2)
New Times won several high-profile media battles, and almost each time it was article 230 which ultimately came to their rescue. Then in July 2013 a group of congress members got together and signed a letter, demanding article 230 be overhauled. A year later, Rentboy and MyRedBook, Backpages two biggest US rivals, both succumbed to the pressures of the Justice Department and Homeland Security, with the site owners pleading guilty to violations of the Travel Act, and in both cases, the sites were permanently shut down.
Section 230 says that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider". In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do. (3)
A new line of attack was taken as a group of senators put pressure on Visa and Mastercard to stop supporting payments on Backpage, which temporarily lost New Times Group their main stream of revenue. But Backpage fought back and won the right to use the credit card services via a judgement in federal court. The legal challenges were becoming relentless, and at times very personal; in 2015, Larkin, Lacey, and Carl Ferrer were arrested under pimping and conspiracy to pimp charges, and paraded in front of the national media. They were shown in a staged court appearance, sat behind bars, dressed in correctional facility orange jumpsuits. And within 4 days all charges were thrown out, due to section 230.
"Backpage was a very good website, there were always a lot of clients. When Backpage was closed it affected me greatly. I suddenly got less bookings, and less income, and now I have to spend up to $200 a week to advertise on sites where I get less clients."
The return of the McCaines
Unbeknownst to Larkin and Lacey, a Senate subcommittee had been created to investigate Backpage’s use of article 230, and review the law itself. During their final report, released on January 8th, 2017, a conclusion was made that Backpage and its staff had invalidated their protection under article 230, by developing a moderation system which helped pimps and illegal posters to conceal their activities. This therefore meant Backpage was part of the content creation rather than simply being host of such content. Ultimately, rather than reporting, or even removing ads which showed suspicion of pimping, trafficking, or underage activity, they were being accused of helping posters avoid such words, and in some cases, automatic filters were removing such terms, before allowing the user to post.
The report outlined three major steps in Backpage’s road to perdition. In the early days of the site, most ads for commercial sex were deleted outright. By early 2009, however, Ferrer had begun to instruct his employees to manually remove any obscene photos and "forbidden words," then post the ad anyway. (2)
On release of the report, Backpage.com immediately closed its adult section, however, it was much too late. A few familiar faces had shown great keenness to be involved in the new legal challenges, two of those being John and Cindy McCaine. Several civil lawsuits were filed within the following 6 months, and with the use of section 230 starting to look less of a sure thing, Lacey, Larkin, and Ferrer began lawyering up and attempting to move around funds for safekeeping.
In August of 2017, a group of 20 senators launched the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which would remove the protections of article 230, making websites more responsible for the content they host. This bill certainly didn’t go unnoticed, and it received a quick backlash from several internet giants, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, who all pointed out the devastating effect it would have to free speech. However, the timing could not have been worse, as these same internet organizations were also becoming under investigation, in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and were soon pulled in front of congress and grilled over their conduct regarding data and privacy.
It seems a compromise was found (most likely agreed during a series of secret meetings between the internet leaders and US bill makers), as protests from the internet giants subsided, and SESTA was combined with another rashly organized bill called FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act). Many smaller organisations continued to be extremely vocal over the harm the SESTA/FOSTA bill would have over websites and internet users, but the bill passed, almost unanimously.
Though FOSTA-SESTA passed through Congress nearly unanimously, it has received widespread criticism. Several major organizations have expressed concern about the bill, including the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and the Wikimedia Foundation. (4)
The end of Backpage and the start of SESTA/FOSTA
Within 15 days of SESTA/FOSTA passing, Carl Ferrer caved, pleading guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. This seemingly gave the Feds the final ammunition they needed, and a day later the homes of Lacey and Larkin were raided, and they were placed under arrest, charged with 93-count indictment with crimes related to trafficking, pimping, and money laundering. Backpage and all its affiliated sites were immediately seized by the FBI, and closed. 2 years on, not helped by a global pandemic, and the cases are yet to go to court, with both Lacey and Larkin on Million Dollar bail bonds, house arrest, and with the majority of their funds and assets already seized.
While that saw the end to Backpage, it wasn’t the end of SESTA/FOSTA, which caused shockwaves through the sex work industry. A number of adult sites immediately closed, and Craigslist quickly removed their dating pages. Reddit closed a number of sex work related threads such as r/escorts and r/sugardaddy, and sex worker social media platform Switter, was kicked by Cloudflare. Even as recently as June of 2020, the SESTA/FOSTA act was used to help close CityXGuide, the site quickly becoming ‘the new Backpage’, in the US.
CityXGuide was one of the sites that became popular in Backpage’s absence, even though CityXGuide’s owner Wilhan Martano bought the domain in 2004. Martano will be the first person tried under FOSTA, for one count of Promotion and Facilitation of Prostitution and Reckless Disregard of Sex Trafficking. (7)
Many genuine sex workers around the world have been devastated by these law changes. Not only did they lose their most reliable platform for meeting clients online, but these new laws are making it very hard to find advertising sites willing to openly support them. Since Backpage’s closure there has been no clear evidence proving a decrease in sex trafficking, in fact, quite the opposite has been seen, with stories coming out that a number of police forces were working with the help of Backpage, and since its closure have seen the number of arrests and successful cases, decrease.
"With Backpage, we would subpoena the ads and it would tell a lot of the story," Daggy said. "Also, with the ads we would catch our victim at a hotel room, which would give us a crime scene. There’s a ton of evidence at a crime scene. Now, since [Backpage] has gone down, we’re getting late reports of them and we don’t have much to go by." (5)
Online classifieds not only allow genuine escorts to work from the safety and comfort of their own homes, but a great number of sex workers used Backpage and similar services to trade information and vet client, limiting their exposure to violence, abuse and other dangers. With these site closures, many escorts were pushed to find clients on the streets and take much greater risks in who and where they met. Since the closure of Backpage and the introduction of SESTA/FOSTA, a number of reports and statements by sex worker organizations, have noted an increase in street workers, violence, and even suicide.
According to a Hacking/Hustling community report, after April 2018, 33.8% of sex workers surveyed reported an increase in violence from clients and 72.45% of online participants reported an increase in economic instability after the seizure of Backpage. And within one month of FOSTA’s enactment, thirteen sex workers were reported missing and two were dead by suicide. (10)
"I think it's always going to be really difficult for escorts to have this constant intrusion and shut down of sites that we all rely on to earn money, instead of punishing us they need to find a way to remove the suspect profiles but leave the site up for those that depend on it"
Intentionally or not, the bill makes no distinction between human trafficking and legitimate, consensual sex work. As such, FOSTA-SESTA essentially makes platform holders liable for talk about sex on their platforms. As my colleague Violet Blue wrote, "Lawmakers did not fact-check the bill's claims, research the religious neocons behind it, nor did they listen to constituents." That's not to mention that FOSTA-SESTA contravenes the First Amendment's protection of free speech.11)
The progression and popularity of classifieds sites and their adult listings didn’t create the sex work industry, they only brought it into the modern world. Arguments continue as to whether Lacey, Larkin, Ferrer, and their classifieds network, were doing enough to tackle issues of trafficking and underage sex workers, or whether they were supporting pimps and other lawbreakers. But there seems very little doubt as to how SESTA/FOSTA has created a more dangerous industry for genuine sex workers, and failed to make any progress on the real issues of the exploitation and abuse of those most vulnerable.
Consensual adult sex work and sex trafficking will likely always operate in overlapping spaces—whether online or offline. And just as the crackdown on Backpage has changed the landscape for sex workers, it’s also pushed more sex trafficking onto the streets, where there’s no telling who a client is before getting into a car. The internet certainly made it easier for everyone to sell sex, but it made it safer for a lot of people, too. (9)
Sources and further reading:
- I am Jane Doe : https://www.iamjanedoefilm.com/ Netflix https://www.netflix.com/title/80167459
- Inside Backpage’s vicious battle with the feds - https://www.wired.com/story/feds-seize-backpagecom-site-linked-to-sex-trafficking/
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act - https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230
- FOSTA-SETSA is now law – where does that leave the internet? - https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/blog/fosta-sesta-is-now-law-where-does-that-leave-the-internet/
- More Police Admitting That FOSTA/SESTA Has Made It Much More Difficult To Catch Pimps And Traffickers - https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20180705/01033440176/more-police-admitting-that-fosta-sesta-has-made-it-much-more-difficult-to-catch-pimps-traffickers.shtml
- U.S. Seizes Backpage.com, a Site Accused of Enabling Prostitution - https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/07/us/politics/backpage-prostitution-classified.html
- Sex worker site, CityXGuide, taken down - https://observer.com/2020/07/sex-worker-site-cityxguide-take-down-protests/
- The rise and fall of Backpage - https://aimgroup.com/2018/08/26/the-rise-and-fall-of-backpage-2/
- There is no new Backpage - https://slate.com/technology/2019/02/backpage-sex-workers-fosta-sesta-switter-tryst-trafficking.html
- Erased: The impact of FOSTA-SESTA- https://hackinghustling.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Erased_Updated.pdf
- FOSTA-SESTA silencing sex workers - https://www.engadget.com/2018-04-11-fosta-sesta-silencing-sex-workers.html