Carl Ferrer, the CEO of classifieds site Backpage.com, has been arrested on felony human trafficking charges that include pimping, pimping of a minor and conspiracy to commit pimping, authorities announced on Thursday.
According to prosecutors, Backpage executives designed the site’s “adult services” section to operate as the world’s biggest online brothel, bringing in millions from escort ads that sometimes involved children. Additionally, Ferrer is a accused of promoting the site by creating Backpage-affiliated prostitution directories scraped from user-submitted ads.
“Backpage.com seems to have knowingly and willingly allowed women and children to be exploited in return for its own financial gain,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a press conference on Thursday, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Backpage has long been the target of legal action for its “adult” section, which allegedly generates 99 percent of the site’s income, and has operated without credit card support (accepting only Bitcoin) since 2015. From Politico:
For more than six months, Ferrer has been locked in a court fight with a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Securtity and Government Affairs Committee, which subpoenaed extensive records from Backpage and Ferrer. They argued that the subpoena intruded on their First Amendment rights as publishers, but a district court judge rejected that argument.
Ferrer and Backpage fared only slightly better at the D.C. Circuit, where a panel voted, 2-1, to deny a stay of the subpoena. The Supreme Court effectively lifted the subpoena for a few days, but ultimately denied relief to the website and its CEO.
In addition to the charges against Ferrer, prosecutors have accused controlling Backpage shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin of felony conspiracy to commit pimping. As of press time, it was unclear if either suspect was in custody or at large.