Republic Columnist Cites GAO Report Showing Backpage Takedown Hurt Women, Children

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Seal of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (via Wikipedia)
Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini points to a 2021 GAO report on the takedown of Backpage and FOSTA's passage, concluding that "shuttering Backpage" made law enforcement's job harder.

In a recent column, longtime Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini cited a 2021 report from the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the 2018 takedown of Backpage had the opposite of its intended effect: it made it more difficult for law enforcement to battle the exploitation of women and minors.

Montini observed that the feds have “spent years trying to prove that Phoenix New Times co-founders Michael Lacey and the late James Larkin, along with some of their associates, are guilty of facilitating prostitution and a host of other crimes by way of their classified advertising website Backpage.”

But, as Montini noted, the GAO report found that the takedown of Backpage, combined with the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, hampered the goals of law enforcement.

Montini wrote that “after shutting down Backpage in 2018 the problem of combatting” sex trafficking was “worse.” It became, “More difficult. Less successful.”

Backpage was especially helpful to law enforcement when it came to investigations of sex trafficking, which involves either children in commercial sex or adults induced into that industry via force, fraud, and coercion.

Sex trafficking and child sex trafficking are heinous crimes and nothing like the simple act of prostitution, which is a misdemeanor involving two consenting adults and an exchange of sex for money.

Backpage did not allow sex-for-money language, and it was proactive in trying to keep minors off the site.

Suspect ads were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), as many as 400 per month. NCMEC then coordinated with the proper law enforcement agencies on the next steps.

Backpage responded to subpoenas within 24 hours, quicker if an endangered woman or child was involved. The company developed training and a handbook for police to use Backpage as a resource. Its employees testified against actual traffickers in court.

In 2011, FBI director Robert Mueller gave Backpage’s CEO a certificate as a gesture of thanks for “outstanding cooperation and assistance” with “an investigation of great importance.”

Sites hosting escort ads are now in countries where a U.S. subpoena has no force. Ads for escorts, massage, etc. still exist, but the FBI and other agencies can’t use those ads to find missing girls or women.

Ironically, the fact that Backpage cooperated extensively to help the police rescue trafficked women and children is now being used by prosecutors against Lacey and his four co-defendants as supposed “knowledge” that wrongdoing was taking place on the site.

Montini’s Conclusion

Sadly, Montini’s opinion piece is behind a paywall, as is an op-ed by former Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia honoring Jim Larkin, Lacey’s longtime business partner, who died on July 31 in tragic circumstances.

Still, Montini’s conclusion was correct. He wrote: “With any prosecution, the hope is not only to find justice, but in some small way to make things better.” In the Backpage trial, it is “unclear what justice will — or should — look like.” If anything, the ‘solution’ seems to have exacerbated the problem.”

Indeed, consider this analysis from the GAO report:

Separately, gathering evidence to bring cases against users of online platforms has also become more difficult. According to a 2019 FBI document, the FBI’s ability to identify and locate sex trafficking victims and perpetrators was significantly decreased following the takedown of According to FBI officials, this is largely because law enforcement was familiar with, and was generally responsive to legal requests for information. In contrast, officials said, law enforcement may be less familiar with platforms located overseas. Further, obtaining evidence from entities overseas may be more cumbersome and time-intensive, as those who control such platforms may not voluntarily respond to legal process, and mutual legal assistance requests may take months, if not years, according to DOJ officials.

It’s not just the FBI and the DOJ. Sex workers themselves — folks the Arizona Republic’s reporters almost never consult — say the feds’ eradication of Backpage has hurt them, even to the point of death.

(Note: “sex work” and “sex worker” are broad categories that include legal sex work, such as stripping, escorting, body rubs, etc., as well as illegal sex work.)

The targeting of Backpage, combined with the passage of the anti-sex worker law, FOSTA/SESTA, led to a chilling of free speech across the internet, with removing its personals section out of fear of prosecution.

Free speech rights were trampled, and the impact on the sex worker community was devastating. A 2020 survey by the sex worker collective Hacking/Hustling found that 99 percent of sex workers did not feel safer after FOSTA/SESTA was signed into law by President Trump.

Forty percent “reported seeing an increase in the number of street-based sex workers since the removal of Backpage and post FOSTA-SESTA,” and 36 percent of online respondents reported facing “increased violence” in the aftermath of what many sex workers called the “SESTApocalypse.” More than 70 percent reported increased economic instability as a result.

2022 survey of 260 sex workers by the Rhode Island chapter of Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics (COYOTE-RI) found that following the FOSTA /Backpage debacle, 79 percent of sex workers reported that the resulting freeze on their free speech prevented them from “using screening procedures that made them feel safe.”

And 40 percent of respondents in the COYOTE survey “experienced increased physical or sexual violence . . . from clients or those posing as clients.” Recruiting by pimps also increased substantially.

In other words, sex trafficking became more prevalent as a result of the Backpage takedown and the passage of FOSTA/SESTA.

Another study by researchers at Baylor University and Claremont Graduate University, finalized in 2019, found that Craigslist’s “erotic services” section– which Craigslist shuttered in 2010 after years of pressure to do so by self-serving politicians and NGOs — demonstrably made all women safer, reducing the homicide rate for women in the U.S. by 10 to 17 percent.

Montini was right. More right than he may have realized.

Too bad his colleague, Republic reporter Richard Ruelas, can’t catch a clue in this regard.

Please also see:
Government, Carl Ferrer Mislead Jury about Michael Lacey, Village Voice Media, Backpage
Ex-Backpage Owner Carl Ferrer Sings for Prosecution, Defense Undercuts His Testimony

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times,, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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