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In June 2015, an ad appeared on Backpage.com in Texas with a series of alluring photos of a naked woman, who described herself to potential dates as “fun, young, exotic,” and “ready to be your fantasy girl.” By the end of the month, the woman had been murdered by a customer who responded to the ad. He set her corpse on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. When the victim’s father contacted Backpage.com to try and get the pictures of his dead daughter removed from the site, the company didn’t immediately comply.
At the time, Backpage was the largest online publisher of sex ads in the world with city-specific sites spanning 97 countries. In the 11 years since it had been launched, it had earned some $500 million for its owners. But it was also the scourge of law enforcement officials across the country whose investigative files teemed with hundreds of examples of cases that had connections to ads on the site: a young girl forced to perform sex acts at gun point, choked to the point of seizures and gang-raped; a woman whose pimp fed her drugs, stole her identification documents and sexually assaulted her with a firearm; yet another woman who tried to escape her pimp by jumping out of a vehicle on the highway and was run over and killed. Attorneys general in multiple states had tried to shut down the site and prosecute its owners and all had failed.
The article goes on to state the following:
But in 2015, the same year the ad in Texas ran, Congress launched its own investigation, ultimately forcing the release of over 1 million pages of documents which provided the evidence necessary for the Department of Justice, in 2018, to file a massive indictment against seven of the company’s executives. (The horror stories mentioned above formed the backbone of the case.) Altogether, the officials face 93 federal charges of facilitating prostitution, money laundering and participating in a criminal conspiracy, which could send them to prison for upward of 20 years. The two men at the center of the operation, say federal investigators, were a pair of longtime media iconoclasts, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin.
The report continues:
The longtime business partners portray themselves as First Amendment martyrs, fighting to preserve free speech on the internet. They believe this battle isn’t just a self-preservation strategy but a natural extension of the pioneering newspaper company they planted in the Arizona desert more than four decades ago, a network of alternative weeklies that would span the country before taking a massive revenue hit from the internet. Their innovation—Backpage.com—not only saved the company, they say, but it brought needed sunlight to a sexual underground.
“Backpage is part of the solution,” Lacey bragged in a draft editorial quoted in the indictment. “Eliminating adult advertising will in no way eliminate or even reduce the incidence of prostitution in this country. … For the very first time, the oldest profession in the world has transparency, record keeping and safeguards.”
The sex-trade profiteering that helped make Larkin and Lacey incredibly wealthy leaves First Amendment purists feeling queasy. Not even their former colleagues can agree on whether to admire or renounce them.
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