For nearly a decade, Backpage has been demonized by politicians, denounced in legislatures, and dramatically mischaracterized by the press, Hollywood, and well-funded activist groups. As early as 2010, top prosecutors from 21 states claimed the classified-ad platform was “exploiting women and children.” In 2012 Washington state passed the first (but not last) law aimed specifically at toppling Backpage, and by 2015 U.S. senators were investigating the company.
Though the Department of Justice shut down Backpage.com in 2018, it still activates strong scorn in some corners. (“They were selling children,” the California senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris said in March.) Several founders and former executives of the company—arrested last year on federal charges of conspiracy, facilitating prostitution, and money laundering—are now awaiting a 2020 trial, as they try to fend off prosecutors eager to seize their assets and disqualify their lawyers.
“For far too long, Backpage.com existed as…a place where sex traffickers frequently advertised children and adults alike,” said then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions upon their April 2018 arrest. U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Strange alleged that Backpage made “hundreds of millions” by “placing profits over the well-being and safety” of victims.
A TALE OF TWO MEMOS
In April 2012, two federal prosecutors sent their boss a memo about Backpage, the site that had, since 2004, been operating like a parallel Craigslist. What would unravel over the course of the 24-page document contradicts almost everything we’ve heard from federal authorities about Backpage since.
The memo—subject: “Backpage.com Investigation”—reveals that six years before Backpage leaders were indicted on federal criminal charges, prosecutors had already begun building a “child sex trafficking” case against the company. But this case was hampered by the fact that Backpage kept trying to help stop sex trafficking.
“Information provided to us by (FBI Agent Steve) Vienneau and other members of the Innocence Lost Task Force confirm that, unlike virtually every other website that is used for prostitution and sex trafficking, Backpage is remarkably responsive to law enforcement requests and often takes proactive steps to assist in investigations,” wrote Catherine Crisham and Aravind Swaminathan, both assistant U.S. attorneys for the Western District of Washington, in the April 3 memo to Jenny Durkan, now mayor of Seattle and then head federal prosecutor for the district. Vienneau told prosecutors that “on many occasions,” Backpage staff proactively sent him “advertisements that appear to contain pictures of juveniles” and that the company was “very cooperative at removing these advertisements at law enforcement’s request.”
“Even without a subpoena, in exigent circumstances such as a child rescue situation, Backpage will provide the maximum information and assistance permitted under the law,” wrote Crisham and Swaminathan.
Over the next year, their office would undertake a large investigation into Backpage’s internal processes and potential criminality.