PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – The founders of the website, Backpage.com, face charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering. Jury selection is set to begin Wednesday, but a recent federal government report on online sex trafficking indicates that taking down the website has made it more difficult for investigators and prosecutors to track down and arrest sex traffickers.
Michael Lacey and James Larkin are the former owners of the Phoenix New Times and 16 other alt-weekly newspapers. The two started Backpage.com as an effort to recapture some of the classified ad revenue that had been lost to Craigslist. But it was Backpage’s adult section that caught the attention of state and federal prosecutors.
Lacey and Larkin were arrested in California in 2016 on state charges of conspiring to commit the crime of pimping. That case was dismissed.
But in April of 2018, FBI agents arrested Lacey and Larkin on the current federal charges. At that time, the federal government shut down the website.
“This is probably the toughest fight of their life. No doubt about that,” said Stephen Lemons, a freelance journalist who writes and edits Front Page Confidential, which is owned by Lacey and Larkin. Lemons is not a spokesperson for the defendants. But he does point out that the men had received commendations from the Justice Department in the past for their cooperation in sex trafficking cases.
“They did cooperate with law enforcement when they were trying to find trafficked children or trafficked women. When actual sex traffickers were being prosecuted, their executives testified in court against the sex traffickers,” said Lemons.
A report released in June by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that Backpage was a useful tool for federal investigators, and that taking it down has made it more difficult to track and prosecute online sex traffickers.
“…the FBI’s ability to locate and identify sex trafficking victims and perpetrators was significantly decreased following the takedown of backpage.com. According to FBI officials, this was largely because law enforcement was familiar with backpage.com and backpage.com was generally responsive to legal requests for information,” read the GAO report, titled “Sex Trafficking Online Platforms and Federal Prosecutions.”
Even some advocates for trafficked women and children admit it has become more difficult to track victims, although they disagree about whether Lacey and Larkin should still be prosecuted.
“I do agree that once we lost that centralized marketplace, the market kind of fractured and so there’s a lot of pop-up sites and so people are all over the place,” said Stacey Sutherland, who is a director with the Arizona Anti-trafficking Network.
But Sutherland believes society is better off without Backpage.
“I don’t think sex trafficking kids falls under free speech. And people can disagree with me on that, but when you’re facilitating that crime, you should pay the price,” said Sutherland.
Lemons disagrees. He argues that the government should not be in the business of shutting down web platforms, like Backpage.
“I think people should think about the problem with the US government coming and taking over an entire website and crushing it. And yeah, that was speech. It may not be the speech you like, but nevertheless it’s speech,” said Lemons.