Backpage.com, now notorious for being a site frequently used to facilitate prostitution, was a target of current vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris when she was the attorney general of California.
However – and despite her belief that it should be eliminated – she was not responsible for shutting the website down. Instead, she brought charges against Backpage’s executives. Even though many of the charges Harris’ office brought to Backpage executives did not result in convictions, she helped raise the profile of the website’s activities, which had been particularly active in San Francisco and other metropolitan hubs across the U.S.
Eventually, a Department of Justice inquiry led the website to get shut down. Here’s the full story of Harris’ pursuit of Backpage.
What Was Backpage?
Backpage was a classified ads website that offered all sorts of services; however, it began expanding after Craigslist.com eliminated its “Adult Services” section in 2010 after receiving a statement from 17 states’ attorney generals alleging that the section was aiding illegal exploitation, prostitution and human trafficking, as ABC News reported.
Ads featuring adult prostitutes were constantly being posted, for which Backpage collected a fee. Some anti-sex trafficking advocates also noted that teenagers were also posting ads; even after Backpage closed its “Adult Services” section, the Washington Post reported that many of the ads simply migrated to the website’s “Dating” category.
The Post reported that Backpage’s executives had maintained that they regularly took down illegal ads, reported violators the police and were not in any way involved in prostitution. The website also cited its rights not to be prosecuted under the Communications Decency Act, which provided legal immunity for websites if third parties were discovered to be using their website for illegal purposes and the website operators were not actively helping or deliberately ignoring the illegal activity. Furthermore, insisted that they would not be forced to engage in censorship.
Moreover, more investigations showed that Backpage was not as innocent in the website’s function as a facilitator of prostitution.
In 2017, the Senate produced a report showing that website employees had been rewriting prostitution ads clearly written by people who were underage and deleting references to their age:
In 2012, for example, Ferrer stated, “Many of these banned terms [e.g. first time, pure, innocent, school girl, etc.] are stripped out or banned so users can just modify their postings.” Backpage also worked directly with users whose ads were rejected or whose text was deleted. This direct contact with users — much like the automatic filtering process — was also successful in helping users post “clean” content despite the illegality of the underlying transactions. According to a December 2010 email written from
“firstname.lastname@example.org” to Ferrer, roughly “75% of the users we contact are converted to compliant.”
A Washington Post inquiry also revealed that Backpage employees in the Phillippines were actively reaching out to prostitutes to encourage them to use Backpage for their business.
How Did Harris Help Take Backpage Down?
In October of 2016, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that one Backpage executive and two shareholders were being charged with multiple sex crimes. Carl Ferrer, the CEO of online advertising for the site was charged with felony “pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping” while controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin were charged with felony “conspiracy to commit pimping.”
In the release, it was alleged that Backpage was “essentially operating as an online brothel” and that 99% of the company’s worldwide income came from the site’s adult section from users who post escort ads. The DA’s office also referenced the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), who noted that 2,900 of suspected child trafficking incidents reported to California police since 2012 were related to Backpage.
Harris was also quoted in the release, saying:
Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal. Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel. Thank you to the California Department of Justice Special Agents, investigators, attorneys, and our partners in law enforcement who have worked tirelessly to bring the operators of this online brothel to justice and protect thousands of victims of trafficking.
When that effort as dismissed, The Mercury News reported that Harris did not give up, instead, charging the three with 26 counts of money laundering and more sex crimes, including 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy. “My office will not turn a blind eye to this criminal behavior simply because the defendants are exploiting and pimping victims on the internet rather than on a street corner,” Harris alleged, noting that seven of the victims from the pimping charges were children.
The sex crimes were dismissed, while the money laundering charges stuck and in 2017, Ferrer eventually shut down the adult section of Backpage, Reason reported. Throughout the entire legal process, the three denied any allegations of promoting/profiting from sex crimes and accused Harris, who was running for U.S. Senate, of going after them to improve her chances at the polls.
On April 5, however, Ferrer pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering and one count of “knowingly conspiring to facilitate prostitution,” and began cooperating with the Department of Justice in a new set of charges being brought against Lacey, Larkin and other Backpage executives (Scott Spear, executive vice president; John Brunst, chief financial officer; Dan Hyer, a sales and marketing director; Andrew Padilla, operations manager; Jaala Vaught, an assistant operations manager).
Backpage was eventually shut down by the Department of Justice in April of 2018.
Harris’ Pursuit of Backpage Alienated Sex Workers
Some sex worker advocates saw Harris’ pursuit of Backpage as part of a pattern she had as a prosecutor: pursuing the criminalization of prostitution in an effort to end sex trafficking without realizing – or caring – about the impact on voluntary sex workers.
“It basically forced me back into much more dangerous forms of sex work, including soliciting clients on unconventional platforms, like Grindr, that aren’t intended for erotic services,” West Seegmiller, a former sex worker and current advocate for sex workers, told Los Angeles Magazine.
In California, Harris was often seen as antagonistic towards sex workers, the New York Times reported, in part because she failed to support Proposition K; the proposition sought to decriminalize prostitution, which some advocates said would protect those who are victims of abuse but are afraid to come forward because they are prostitutes.
When Harris was the district attorney of San Francisco in 2008, she was not in favor of the proposition, according to what she told the Times, “I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” Harris said. “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”
“We’re in the practice and habit of protecting victims, not criminalizing victims,” Harris said. “Our penal code was not created just to protect Snow White,” she said. The Times added that 65% of the victims in her department’s sexual assault unit were sex workers.
However, Harris appeared to have changed her position on that, telling The Root that she was open to the decriminalization of sex work in a 2019 interview.