The executives of classified listings site Backpage.com have been cleared of criminal charges relating to adult services advertised on the site. CEO Carl Ferrer and Backpage’s founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, faced various charges related to pimping and the pimping of minors, with prosecutors accusing the trio of profiting from prostitution and sex trafficking.
Last Friday, though, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman found in favor of the defendant, with Bowman’s ruling (which can be seen here, courtesy of Ars Technica) stating that Backpage’s business is shielded by the Communications Decency Act. This federal law was introduced in 1996, and protects web publishers from assuming responsibility for user-generated content. “By enacting the CDA, Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech,” said Bowman in his ruling.
The case is not the first brought against Backpage, and the site has been the target of at least three lawsuits from women who say they were the victim of sex traffickers who used Backpage to place classified ads. According to a report from Newsweek, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that some 420 children have been trafficked through Backpage, while researchers from Arizona State University have repeatedly found ads on the site featuring minors. Meanwhile, supporters of Backpage say that it does help some sex workers by allowing them the freedom to operate independently.
It’s unlikely, though, that the site — or even just its adult section — will be closed under current legislation, which has repeatedly protected its creators from criminal charges. Critics are instead hoping that the law can be changed to allow some action to be taken. “The Communications Decency Act was not designed to profit these [people],” Dominique Roe-Sepowitz of Arizona State University told Newsweek. “I think we have to change this Communications Decency Act to encourage people to stop this behavior.”