Federal law enforcement authorities seized the classified ads website Backpage.com and hit the founder with charges as part of a broad operation that reportedly included lots of raids. Visitors to the site that has long been seen as a haven for online prostitution were met on Friday with a notice that said it had been seized as part of an enforcement action by the FBI, IRS, and Postal Inspection Service. The notice on the site doesn’t specify the nature of the enforcement action. Although additional information was expected Friday evening a judge decided the case should remain sealed.
Michael Lacey, a founder of the weekly newspaper Phoenix New Times and one of the founders of Backpage.com was charged in what appeared to be the end of a federal human-trafficking probe. His lawyer confirmed to the Arizona Republic that his client had been charged as part of a 93-count indictment that remained sealed. Law enforcement officers raided the Arizona homes of Lacey and Jim Larkin, another co-founder of the site.
The website had long been engulfed by scandal as state attorneys general and anti-sex trafficking groups said it facilitated prostitution and sex trafficking. A senate investigation into sex trafficking, for example, concluded that the website selectively edited words out of ads while also helping posters figure out how to post ads that would not be taken down.
Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain who has long spoken up against human trafficking, praised the enforcement action saying that she had long tried to get the company to change its ways. “I’m sorry that it came to this,” she said. “We had tried to work with Backpage for many years in an attempt to help them see that what they were doing was harming children and harming young women and young men. And we could never get through to them.” McCain told the Arizona Republic that from her understanding officials raided every Backpage office around the world.
Lace and Larkin launched the online classifieds site in 2004 as they built up a network of alternative weeklies around the country. They bought out Village Voice Media in 2005 but later sold all their interests in newspapers in 2012. At the time, they characterized the move as a way to protect the papers from the scandals that engulfed Backpage.