Carl Ferrer, the chief executive officer of Amsterdam-based classified-ad site Backpage, was arrested in Texas Thursday afternoon at the Houston airport. Ferrer, who is the subject of a current Congressional-subcommittee investigation into the site’s alleged role in sex trafficking, also had a warrant out in California for his arrest.
The charges against him include pimping, conspiracy, pimping of a minor, and attempted pimping of a minor. None stem from things Ferrer is alleged to have done personally. Rather, it’s asserted that because he own a classified-ad website—the second largest in the world, after Craigslist—where these activities may have happened, Ferrer himself is guilty of the charges.
Upon arriving on a flight from Amsterdam to Texas Thursday, “nearly three dozen members of the Texas Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Unit participated in Ferrer’s arrest and the execution of a search warrant on the Dallas headquarters of Backpage,” according to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Making money off the backs of innocent human beings by allowing them to be exploited for modern-day slavery is not acceptable in Texas,” Attorney General Paxton said in a statement. “I intend to use every resource my office has to make sure those who profit from the exploitation and trafficking of persons are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Outside the realm of politician hyperbole Backpage.com is a site much like Craigslist, its more well-known online classifieds counterpart. Like Craigslist, Backpage provides a space for people to post ads offering secondhand-lawnmower sales, independent housecleaning services, and all sorts of things—including, in the adult entertainment section of the site, things like strippers, dominatrixes, and sex.
And like Craigslist—and Facebook, and Twitter, and every newspaper with a comment section—Backpage is protected by Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. It says that user-generated content sites cannot be held strictly liable for things members or users post. Without Section 230, Twitter could be taken down over terrorism threats from anonymous ISIS members, Facebook could be destroyed because some users have been found to solicit sex from underage individuals in its messaging section, Reason could be liable for anything its commenters post, and Craigslist could be killed over someone selling a stolen TV there.
But but but… the children! The children are actually being harmed by actions like Ferrer’s arrest. I’ve written extensively about Backpage over the past few years, as well as about U.S. sex-trafficking investigations. While Backpage doesn’t screen all its ads, it does employ people to monitor the adult section. And any ads suspected of containing anyone under 18 are reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Countless investigations into child sex-trafficking in the U.S. have been solved with Backpage’s help.
Political opponents of the site like to imagine that without it, sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors would simply cease. But the closure of sites like Backpage—where ads for adult sex workers and adults selling totally non-sex related things far outnumber any ads for illegal activity—send both independent sex workers and sex-traffickers to more underground venues or back out onto the streets—places where no one is screening anything or reporting anything suspicious to the government.