All eyes are on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the U.S. Capitol this week, as he faces questions from two congressional committees. The inquiry centers on the expectation that Facebook should protect users from third-party predators who exploit private data. The social media empire clearly failed its duty (and made millions doing it), and it’s good to see the emperor called to account.
But there’s another federal crackdown unfolding over the last several days that shouldn’t be overlooked. It targets a more gratuitous forum for online predatory behavior — a website that made millions while enabling the sale of women and children for sex.
The notorious Backpage.com website was shut down last week, and now its operators may finally face justice for hosting a fetid stream of illegal commerce.
An indictment unsealed Monday alleges that seven people tied to the company, including its two co-founders, conspired to facilitate prostitution, including sex acts involving underage teens. It followed Friday’s seizure of the website after a multi-agency federal investigation; Backpage users now only see a screen alerting them to the enforcement action.
Reading the indictment, and hearing stories of Backpage victims in Tacoma and other places, is enough to make one’s skin crawl.
“Many of the ads published on Backpage depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking,” the indictment states, adding that “although Backpage has sought to create the perception that it diligently attempts to prevent the publication of such ads, the reality is that Backpage has allowed such ads to be published while declining ― for financial reasons ― to take necessary steps to address the problem.”
Amid the duplicity, it’s refreshing to know people from our community had a hand in exposing Backpage. Last fall, two young women from Pierce County and a third from King County settled their lawsuit against the website, a week before it was set for trial in Pierce County Superior Court.
The three said they were runaways, age 13 to 15, when a pimp advertised them on the site, and they contended Backpage knowingly let them be marketed for sex. One was a seventh-grader reduced to being listed as an "80 DOLLAR SPECIAL.”
Like we said, skin-crawling stuff.
The website’s reckoning didn’t come quickly enough, as public officials can attest. Nearly seven years ago, the mayors of Tacoma and seven other Washington cities sent a letter to Backpage’s parent company, urging it to curb underage sex trafficking.
But this week’s indictment seemed inevitable after a series of setbacks pushed Backpage to the front page. In early 2017, a congressional probe found the company complicit in trying to sanitize online trafficking by deleting words such as "little girl" and “Lolita” from ads. Soon after, the website shut down its “escort” section.
And in 2015, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that those who act as conduits for the sale of girls can’t hide behind the U.S. Communications Decency Act. Congress passed that law in 1996 to broadly protect Internet providers from third-party offenses, but it surely didn’t have this kind of malignant subterfuge in mind.
That state high court decision paved the way for a pair of Tacoma attorneys, Jason Amala and Erik Bauer, to pursue justice for the three victims locally, as well as young women in at least three other states.
We wish Backpage’s undoing meant the end of sleazeballs who lurk in the digital shadows. In addition to children, they pimp addicted, damaged women, many of whom entered the sex trade as girls, coerced by beatings and other abuse.
Sadly, even casual readers of local news know there’s insatiable demand for such depravity (“11 sentenced in child sex sting operation in Pierce County,” read a TNT headline published last weekend), and suppliers aren’t easily daunted.
We just pray the next online marketplaces are shut down faster than Backpage.com.