Type Backpage dot com into your browser now and you’ll be greeted with a single still image: “backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized,” it says in huge text. With its over-the-top drop shadows and oddly lowercase header, the low quality, somewhat off-kilter jpeg would almost be meme-worthy if the subject matter weren’t so grim.
Though Backpage was ostensibly a classified ads site (a la Craigslist), it was known as a hotbed for underage sex trafficking. Founded by Village Voice Media back in 2004, the site featured an “adult” section which contained a number of subcategories for escorts, sex workers, phone sex operators, and the like, but it was also used as a space for pimps to peddle underage girls.
In 2012, the New York Times wrote that “Backpage accounts for about 70 percent of prostitution advertising among five Web sites that carry such ads in the United States, earning more than $22 million annually from prostitution ads…” Prior to introduction of FOSTA, the U.S. Senate wrote in a report that the site was involved in 73 percent of child sex trafficking reports received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The site shut down its adult section on January 9 2017 following a particularly damning report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which alleged that the company knowingly facilitated sex trafficking.
“Backpage does not deny that its site is used for criminal activity, including the sale of children for sex,” said the report. “Instead the company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA).”
However Congress’s March 21 passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (or FOSTA for short) will likely change that. The bill — which will weaken the protections allotted by the Communications Decency Act once Trump signs it into law — could have an impact on the site's fate, as it allows platforms like Backpage to be held legally accountable for the actions of its users. Though Backpage was a positive force for many sex workers, FOSTA will allow the feds to press charges against the site for the existence of any underage trafficking at all.
And while this may be well and good in the case of platforms like Backpage, with its history of turning a blind eye to these sort of crimes — it’s worth noting that FOSTA’s impact on basically everything else online would be significantly more concerning. The bill's passage in Congress has already resulted in the closing of countless subreddits and Craigslist’s personals section. It’s also devastating the lives of professional sex workers and, you know, a direct affront to one of the internet’s founding principles.
Update 4/9/2018 11:10AM: A previous version of this piece stated that Backpage was "more often than not used as a space for pimps to peddle underage girls." While Backpage itself acknowledged underage sex trafficking activity, it's impossible to make an assessment of its proportionality to other activities. President Trump has not yet signed FOSTA. The article has been updated throughout.