WASHINGTON — Federal officials have taken down Backpage.com, a major classified advertising website that has been repeatedly accused of enabling prostitution and sex trafficking of minors.
“Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized,” a notice on the website says.
Backpage has been under increasing pressure in recent years, in part because it featured ads that included what child advocates said were code words for underage girls, including “Amber Alert.”
In January 2017, the site shuttered its “adult services listings” section under mounting criticism from law enforcement groups and senators. But many of the adult listings were simply rerouted to sections of the site dedicated to dating.
Revenue at Backpage increased to $135 million in 2014 from $5.3 million in 2008, according to a Senate report in 2017. More than 90 percent of the earnings came from adult ads, the California Department of Justice found.
The federal seizure notice appeared on the website Friday afternoon. Earlier that day, according to news reports in Arizona, the FBI had raided the Sedona home of Michael Lacey, a founder of Backpage. An FBI spokesman in Phoenix confirmed that there was “law enforcement activity” there and referred further questions to the Justice Department.
While the notice on the Backpage site said the Justice Department would provide more information at 6 p.m. Friday, a department official declined to comment, saying the matter remained sealed by a judge for now.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the seizure of the site was “an important step forward in the fight against human trafficking.”
“This builds on the historic effort in Congress to reform the law that for too long has protected websites like Backpage from being held liable for enabling the sale of young women and children,” he said in a statement.
The site’s founders, Lacey and Jim Larkin, have said that Backpage notifies law enforcement officials authorities whenever it becomes aware of illegal activity. They have also maintained that the site is protected from criminal charges by a federal statute, the Communications Decency Act. That law protects internet platform providers from being held legally liable for what others post on their websites.
That protection will be weakened by a bill Congress passed last month, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA. It makes it easier for states to prosecute, or for victims to sue, internet companies they accuse of hosting content that facilitated sex trafficking.
While President Donald Trump has not yet signed FOSTA into law, Craigslist has already responded to the bill’s passage by taking down its personal ads section.
However, even before FOSTA, there was already a statute that made it a crime to use a “facility” in interstate commerce — like the internet — to knowingly enable prostitution. Law enforcement officials had used that law to go after operators of other websites facing similar accusations, including a 2012 case involving Escorts.com, a 2014 case involving MyRedbook.com and a 2015 case involving Rentboy.com.
Internet firms and advocates for free speech online had opposed FOSTA, arguing that it would lead to censorship and was not necessary because the federal government already had the ability to prosecute people who used the internet to facilitate prostitution.
In 2017, a coalition of state and territorial attorneys general asked Congress to make it easier for state and local law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute online facilitators of child sex trafficking. They singled out Backpage, citing dozens of instances in which minors had been trafficked via the site.
Also last year, Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., oversaw an investigative report that accused Backpage of knowingly facilitating online sex trafficking.
On Friday, McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, hailed the federal seizure of the website as “great news” but also called it “long overdue.” She said FOSTA would allow state and local officials to take similar steps in the future, rather than relying on the federal government to do so.
“State and local law enforcement need this bill to enable them to take swift action against websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children online, and to stop the next Backpage long before another website can claim so many innocent victims,” she said in a statement.