Justice Department officials on Monday praised the actions of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies seizing Backpage.com, the popular classifieds website long accused of enabling sex traffickers and profiting off criminalized sex work.
Sex worker rights advocates, meanwhile, say the loss of Backpage and the US government’s other efforts to shutter similar sites is building toward a crisis, forcing innumerable sex workers across the country off the internet and into harm’s way.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, claiming the FBI’s efforts were a “a major step toward keeping women and children across America safe,” cited not only sex trafficking during his praise of Backpage’s demise on Monday, but the site’s role as a “dominant marketplace for illicit commercial sex.”
Backpage visitors were confronted with a notice on Friday describing a federal law enforcement action involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Postal Service—investigators at which handle wire fraud and other mail-related crimes—as well as the Internal Revenue Service and multiple state agencies from Arizona and California to Texas.
Seven individuals affiliated with the website, including 69-year-old Backpage founder Michael Lacey, have been charged in a 93-count indictment with a range of money-laundering crimes as well as facilitating prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, and conspiracy to do so.
Also charged are Backpage employees James Larkin, Scott Spear, and John E. “Jed” Brunst of Arizona, and Daniel Hyer, Andrew Padilla, and Jaala Joye Vaught of Texas.
“Backpage has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking, placing profits over the well-being and safety of the many thousands of women and children who were victimized by its practices,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth A. Strange, describing internal emails and company documents obtained by the feds as “shocking in their callousness.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray said Lacey and the other defendants were “complicit” in the use of Backpage to “exploit human beings for monetary gain” and that they would now “be held accountable for their heinous actions.”
“Whether on the street or on the Internet, sex trafficking will not be tolerated,” added Wray. “Together with our law enforcement partners, the FBI will continue to vigorously combat this activity and protect those who are victimized.”
Lawmakers, including Senators John McCain and Claire McCaskill, and victim organizations seeking justice for sex trafficking victims have widely praised the FBI’s move, yet others have criticized the shutdown, arguing it is likely to endanger sex workers’ lives by pushing them offline and into more dangerous situations.
The Women’s March on Saturday tweeted that the Backpage takedown was an “absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients,” adding: “Sex workers rights are women’s rights.”
Politicians, meanwhile, face criticism over the passage of two bills packaged as anti-sex-trafficking initiatives: the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). The bills have been widely rejected by sex workers’ rights advocates and other experts for placing sex workers in immediate harm.
Although Backpage was repeatedly cited in Congress as the reason the bills were necessary, neither was in effect when the FBI took action Friday—demonstrating to many that such laws are entirely superfluous, serving only to subjugate sex workers and endanger their lives. Deprived of safe spaces online, sex workers stand to lose the one channel enabling them to freely exchange information about potentially dangerous clients.
Many, experts fear, may be forced into a life on the streets, where women in the trade have been historically brutalized by men bent on siphoning their profits. In a statement, the Sex Workers Outreach Project called the seizure of Backpage “another example of state-sanctioned violence against the sex work community and their families.”
Added SWOP: “Attempting to deter sex workers from their jobs by removing advertising and screening platforms is akin to pushing sex work ‘underground’ and in the streets—where workers have less power in relation to their clients and where sex workers are at greater risk of arrest and police violence.”