Feds Investigate Three Adult Ad Sites Dominating U.S. Market in Wake of Backpage Takedown

Photo of a stack of Wall Street Journals.
The WSJ may not grok the irony, but Techdirt's Masnick does. (Neon Tommy via Flickr)
The Wall Street Journal missed the irony of its recent report on the U.S. government's continued war on sex work, but Mike Masnick at Techdirt didn't.

According to a September 15 article byWall Street Journal  reporter Lalita Clozel, the U.S. government is targeting three websites that it claims now dominate the market for adult ads in America: Rubmaps.ch, EroticMonkey.ch and Eros.com, all of them located in Europe, beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.

The feds are investigating whether these three sites have “engaged in or knowingly enabled human trafficking, prostitution and money laundering,” Clozel writes. She quotes a reputed tech expert, who alleges that all three websites have “benefitted substantially” from the government’s seizure of the erstwhile online listings colossus, Backpage.com.

However, Clozel fails to note that before the FBI eliminated Backpage from the internet and hit its former owners with 100 counts of facilitating prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy, the website received countless kudos from the law enforcement community for helping to track down missing kids and prosecute actual sex traffickers, who induce minors into the sex trade, or adults via force, fraud or coercion.

By censoring Backpage, arresting its former owners and outlawing adult advertising online, the U.S. government has jettisoned key allies in its putative battle against sex trafficking and helped foster the growth of European ad sites with zero incentive to cooperate with investigators as Backpage once did.

(FYI: Prostitution is a far less serious offense than sex trafficking and involves commercial sex among consenting adults, but this is a distinction that neither the government nor the mainstream media feel the need to make, and certainly the WSJ is no outlier when it comes to using these terms interchangeably.)

But now, because of the crackdown on Backpage, which took place on April 6, 2018, and the passage that same spring of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which established new federal penalties for adult advertising online, law enforcement has lost key allies in the pursuit of sex traffickers. Ironically, the government essentially has helped foster new listings giants operating outside the U.S. that are hostile to its anti-trafficking agenda.

Backpage, for instance, responded to subpoenas in a timely manner, shared information with police and even trained local and federal gendarmes in how to spot sex trafficking on the web. The company’s executives traveled to testify in court against sex traffickers and pimps, helping prosecutors secure convictions.

But because of the fear bred by FOSTA and the eradication of Backpage, local and federal agencies no longer have such resources at their beck and call. Tracy Raggs, a high-level investigator with Homeland Security, basically said as much about the adult advertising sites involved in an interview with the WSJ.

“They have gone overseas, where they know  we can’t touch them like we did Backpage,” Raggs explained.

Well, She Told You So

This is exactly what real anti-trafficking experts such as Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a professor of criminology at George Mason University and the author of the book Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, long ago predicted would happen in the wake of FOSTA.

Mehlman-Orozco played Cassandra in the run-up to FOSTA’s passage and the Backpage takedown. During an interview with Front Page Confidential in February 2018, she accurately predicted the fallout to come.

“You are going to see a displacement and a dispersion of these erotic advertisements, except instead of being on one open-access website, it’s going to be displaced to other websites that may not be cooperative with law enforcement, and dispersed to multiple websites,” she explained.

But the feds, politicians and the non-governmental organizations that have profited off the moral panic of sex trafficking were more intent on slaughtering a scapegoat than solving a problem they’ve long hyped and bemoaned.

Federal law enforcement has effortlessly segued from the facade of fighting sex trafficking to waging war on all sex work, as they do now annually by targeting sex trafficking in connection with Super Bowl (despite this myth of a link between the crime and game day being thoroughly debunked), and by doubling down on the colossal waste of  resources now known as Operation Independence Day (formerly, Operation Cross Country.)

One of the most blatant examples of the feds’ creepy obsession with sex work in the recent news regards a Chicago woman hit with a 13-count federal indictment last week on allegations that she ran a “West Side fetish business,” which technically is not even prostitution, but, hey, close enough as far as the feds are concerned.

The woman reportedly faces charges of committing prostitution across state lines and money laundering. Of course, the government wants to seize a building she owns in Chicago, where fetish play supposedly took place. She’s pleaded not guilty.

Bizarrely, the MSM almost never questions why the feds are back to playing the morality police, enforcing a nationwide prohibition on sex work that’s not unlike the prohibition on alcohol their predecessors once sought to enforce in the 1920s.

Masnick Knows the Score

One of the few commentators who gets the hypocrisy and the danger of the U.S. government’s current mania for involving itself in the consensual sexual relations of its citizenry is Mike Masnick of Techdirt fame.

In an analysis the WSJ article, Masnick faults the paper for shifting “back and forth between prostitution and sex trafficking as if they’re identical.” He observes that people “seem to use the language of sex trafficking to push for the attacks on these sites, but when it comes down to details, they’re really just focused on prostitution.”

Backpage’s attempts to exclude unwanted content as well as the fact that Backpage execs regularly cooperated with law enforcement…are being used against Lacey and Larkin by prosecutors as evidence of scienter, or knowledge of wrongdoing.

Masnick points out that whoever owns the websites mentioned in the WSJ story “has zero interest in working with the US government to prevent trafficking.” He compares that stance to Backpage’s diligent and well-known efforts “to work with the feds to prevent sex trafficking on the site,” adding that this “raises a big question about what the actual goal is here” for the government.

And Masnick notes the article’s sinister suggestion that prosecutors might take aim at U.S. companies who offer support services to the European-based sites being discussed, such as the web performance and security company, Cloudflare.

Writes Masnick:

“If the feds think it makes sense to go after that company because some of its customers had illegal activities occurring on their websites, that opens up a whole bunch of serious questions about how deep the liability levels are supposed to go.”

Indeed, consider the predicament of this website’s co-founders, veteran journalists and publishers Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, who are looking at spending the rest of their lives in prison for content posted on Backpage by third parties.

The company’s attempts to exclude unwanted content as well as the fact that Backpage execs regularly cooperated with law enforcement — even earning a certificate of appreciation in 2011 from then-FBI director Robert Mueller — are being used against Lacey and Larkin by prosecutors as evidence of scienter, or knowledge of wrongdoing.

Such Kafkaesque tactics could be employed against any number of tech companies large and small, even if their services are merely ancillary in nature.

That’s because federal prosecutors take the broad, unenlightened view that they do not have to prove the defendants in the Lacey and Larkin case were aware of specific ads for illicit transactions.

Instead, the government simply assumes that all adult ads are illegal on their face and asserts that others should act accordingly.

That’s not an assumption the government should be allowed to make under the First Amendment, or even more generally. U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner made this point in a famous 2015 decision in Backpage’s favor, when he observed that “not all advertisements for sex are advertisements for illegal sex,” and offered fetishism, phone sex and striptease performances as examples of legal erotic services.

But these days, the government is in full witch-hunt mode when it comes to sex work. And legal bulwarks aren’t putting much of a crimp in the feds’ moralistic rush to indict consenting adults based on a retrograde view of human sexuality and a perverse theory of vicarious liability that seeks to make criminals of ordinary citizens.

For more on the U.S. government’s war on sex work, please read:
Feds Stonewall on Access to Backpage’s Servers in Lacey and Larkin Case
FBI Doubles Down on Annual Roust of Sex Workers, Renames Vice Raids, ‘Operation Independence Day’

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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, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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