PHOENIX (CN) — Forced to shut down its de facto sex-trafficking adults-only classified ad section by a Senate subcommittee, Backpage.com and affiliates have been slapped with federal lawsuits on both ends of the country by nonprofit shelters for women and children.
“Defendants made millions of dollars in profits each year from websites that they designed and intended to be used, and that they knew were being used, for illegal sex trafficking, including of children,” the Phoenix-based Sojourner Center said in its federal complaint in Phoenix. Sojourner describes itself as “one of the largest, longest-running domestic violence shelters in the United States.”
“Sojourner Center provides shelter, care, and support to trafficking victims, including individuals trafficked on Backpage,” the complaint states.
Also Tuesday, Backpage, two affiliates and three men who own Backpage faced a lawsuit from Florida Abolitionist and an anonymous woman, Jane Doe, who says she was “raped and sold at least five times in a period of 12 hours” after she was trafficked on Backpage in March 2013. Filed in Orlando, this complaint says Doe’s “traffickers posted her photograph and an advertisement offering her for sexual services on Backpage without Ms. Doe’s consent or authorization.”
Plaintiffs in both cases are represented by the office of David Boies, who represented Al Gore in the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election.
The Sojourner Shelter says in its complaint that Backpage “depends on sex trafficking to remain profitable.”
Individual defendants in both complaints include Backpage owners Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin. Defendants in both cases include EvilEmpire.com and BigCity.com.
The Phoenix lawsuit includes 12 other corporate defendants and two more men.
“In May 2011, Backpage’s ‘Adult Services’ section, nationwide, featured over 700,000 paid advertisements,” the Phoenix complaint says. It adds that when Backpage’s major competitor, Craigslist, took down its Adult Services page in 2009, “online sex trafficking declined by 50 percent.”
The complaint continues: “After Craiglist.org’s exit from this market, Backpage, formerly a part of the Village Voice newspaper, changed its online advertising model to concentrate on, and quickly dominate, the market for advertising victims of sex trafficking, including underage children.
“Backpage cornered the market for advertisements selling sex. In 2013, Backpage generated and collected 80 percent of all revenue derived from online commercial sex advertisements.”
A 2016 study from the Advanced Interactive Media Group estimated that Backpage realized $2 million in monthly profits from online sex classifieds.
The U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation’s 20-month investigation of Backpage is the cornerstone of the lawsuits. The 53-page report, issued Jan. 9, found evidence that Backpage had edited its adult postings to cover up listings offering illegal sex.
The report “reveals that Backpage clearly understands that a substantial amount of child sex trafficking takes place on its website,” according to the Phoenix lawsuit.
The Senate report is titled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.”
Sojourner Center says in its complaint that Backpage created automated filtering programs to change or hide buzzwords that might trigger attention from law enforcement.
“The United States Senate reported that Backpage automatically deletes the following terms from any advertisement: ‘lolita,’ ‘teenage,’ ‘rape,’ ‘amber alert,’ ‘little girl,’ ‘teen,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘school girl,’” the Phoenix complaint states.
Backpage responded to the report by shutting down its adult section, and rerouting inquiries to this message: “The government has unconstitutionally censored this content. What happened? Find out – Protect internet free speech.”
The page also provides a donation link for Children of the Night, a nonprofit that rescues children from prostitution.
Backpage did not respond to a request for comment.
Attorney Boies is with Boies Schiller Flexner of Armonk, N.Y. Local counsel in the Florida case is Karen Dyer in Orlando.
That complaint states: “In effect, Backpage makes it harder for someone to sell a dog or cat in its ‘Pets’ section than it does for someone to sell an adult or child for sex in the ‘Adult Services’ or ‘Dating’ sections. Anyone trying to sell a dog or cat through ‘Pets’ must verify their telephone number, while anyone trying to sell an adult or child for sex through ‘Adult Services’ or ‘Dating’ do not.”
Boies’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Defendants in Phoenix include PostFaster.com; Website Technologies LLC; IC Holdings LLC; Dartmoor Holdings LCC; Atlantische Bedrijven C.V.; Kickapoo River Investments LLC; Amstel River Holdings LLC; PostFaster LLC; Classified Solution Ltd.; Medalist Holdings Inc.; Camarillo Holdings LLC; UGC Tech Group C.V.; John E. Brunst and Scott Spear.