Internet users going to personal ads website Backpage.com over the weekend found the site is no longer active. The FBI and other federal agencies have seized it and shut it down.
The move follows repeated accusations that Backpage was helping those engaged in human trafficking, offering underage males and females for sex.
The government's action also follows Congress' final action on the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, legislation scheduled to be signed by the President over the weekend.
The measure “expresses the sense of Congress that section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 was not intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”
That section limits the legal liability of websites for content they publish that was created by others. In other words, if someone posted an ad for an underage prostitute on a website, the site could argue that it was not at fault. Congress has now made clear that any site promoting sex traffickers has no such protection.
As far back as 2011, law enforcement officials in nearly every state were trying to crack down on Backpage. The attorneys general from 46 states sent a letter to the company's lawyer, claiming their investigators had found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.
"It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the 2011 letter said. At the time, the attorneys general suggested the sex ads were a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors.
In 2017, a group of women's shelters sued Backpage, claiming that the site's owners knew that it was being used for illegal sex trafficking but did nothing to stop it.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former sex crimes prosecutor, applauded the suit, claiming the Senate's lengthy investigation had shown the site did not turn away ads selling children. Over the weekend, she also applauded the FBI's action.
“This is great news for survivors, advocates, and law enforcement in Missouri and across the country, but it’s also long-overdue, and further proof of why our bipartisan legislation is so critical,” McCaskell said in a statement.
Company says it's helped law enforcement
The operators of Backpage.com have said they cooperate with law enforcement whenever they become aware of illegal activity on the site. They maintain their business continues to be protected by law.
However, another classified ads site, Craigslist, announced last month it is shutting down its personals ad section, noting the legislation awaiting the President's signature could expose them to legal action for illegal activity promoted on the website.