Federal authorities believe the founders of Backpage and five others who worked for the website not only facilitated prostitution by running ads for it but hid their profits as well.
An indictment unsealed on Monday alleges that the classified site helped customers to remain legally viable by editing their ads while still promoting commercial sex. It also charges them with money laundering.
Linda Smith, president of the anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International, called the charges “deeply satisfying.”
The Associated Press was unable to reach attorneys for Michael Lacey and James Larkin, the founders of the website.
The online service has sparked a heated debate in recent days since federal authorities seized Backpage on Friday.
Anti-trafficking advocates have rejoiced in the site's demise while some feminists have denounced authorities for shutting it down.
A leftist group, Collective Action for Safe Spaces, characterized the shutdown as an assault on women. It tweeted "the crackdown on Backpage is not about ending trafficking; it's motivated by the patriachal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies."
The Women's March said "sex workers rights are women's rights." It called the crackdown "an absolute crisis for sex workers," arguing that sites like Backpage keep them safe by allowing them to screen and verify buyers before meeting.
It's an argument that anti-trafficking advocates reject.
Lisa Thompson, vice president of research and education for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told CBN News "I don't think there's any such thing as safe prostitution. That's just a complete lie."
Smith has worked with survivors for more than 20 years since starting Shared Hope and says she's never met one who hasn't had an extremely violent encounter with a buyer.
She says feminists who believe that online sites like Backpage help to decrease violence are misguided. Whatever screening can be done beforehand, she says, means nothing once the buyer meets the person they've bought. "The violence," says Smith,"is when they get into the room. They don't know what that buyer is going to want until they get into the room."
Benjamin Nolot, an anti-trafficking advocate who founded Exodus Cry, says that feminists speaking out in support of Backpage reveals much about where the movement is headed. "It shows how deeply the Women's March has been hijacked and co-opted by the pro sex workers movement," he told CBN News.
Thompson believes that elites in the movement have become disconnected with the grass roots. The pushback has been clear on social media with one woman posting "if this is women's rights, I don't want to be a woman."
Turning Point for Trafficking?
Nolot and other anti-trafficking advocates say the seizure of Backpage, combined with Craigslist taking down its "personals" section and Congress passing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) last month, heralds a turning point in the fight against trafficking.
"What this has essentially done is broken the back of sex trafficking in America," said Nolot, "it's a pretty powerful thing to happen."
President Trump is expected to sign the SESTA bill on Wednesday. It will remove a provision in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) that was intented to protect companies that acted in good faith to protect children from exploitaiton.
In recent years, however, many tech companies have used the law as a shield to give them blanket immunity for any activity on their websites.
Now, anti-trafficking advocates expect some trafficking survivors will begin to go after these companies and remind them that there can be a cost to pay for encouraging or facilitating trafficking activity.
"I believe it will bring down the market for a period of time," said Smith, "I believe that some will try to move overseas. We will have to fight it."
She doesn't, however, predict that large numbers of survivors will face off against these companies in court. "It's so difficult to go to court and have your life peeled back," she said.
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