Law enforcement and Attorneys General across the nation continue their campaign against online classified advertising site backpage.com. Although their assault on backpage is unrelenting and continuous it has proved totally futile and unsuccessful. A full five years after the National Association of Attorneys General demanded the backpage.com website to remove its adult classified escorts section law enforcement has gained zero ground in acheiving their goal of eliminating backpage’s adult ad section. In law enforcements view and questionable wisdom they consider the adult ads and or escort section of backpage to be a thinly veiled platform for prostitution. Although prostitution is illegal in most states, posting ads is not, and is firmly protected under the first amendment of the constitution. This first amendment roadblock is much to the chagrin of law enforcement the country over. Backpage is also protected by Federal law in the form of Communications Decency Act. Multiple court rulings have reaffirmed backpage’s right for its users to communicate as speech is protected.
A court ruling as recently as March has only strengthened backpage.com position on the matter. The U.S. court of Appeals upheld a previous dismissal of a lawsuit against Backpage brought by three women who appeared in escort ads posted by their pimps. The judges in the case ruled that Section 230 of the CDA ( Communications Decency Act ) prohibits viewing an online service provider such as Backpage.com in the same light “as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by a another information content provider”. In other words the platform itself cannot be held accountable for content its users publish. If one thinks of this in the context of social media, Facebook for example, the ruling says that under the Communications Decency Act Facebook cannot be held accountable for everything its users publish on the website. So if I am a Facebook user and post something crazy, for example making threats against the president, Facebook is not responsible for those threats. I am responsible as I am the user who published said threats and Facebook is only the platform provider for me to publish content on. This is an important precedent for freedom of speech and especially for websites providing a platform for users to publish content. In the context of a classified ad website like backpage.com, it means backpage is not responsible for the ads its users publish, rather the user is responsible. In this case the user responsible was the pimp, and backpage only provided the platform to publish the ads on. Had the judges ruled against backpage it would set a dangerous precedent and literally threaten thousands of websites and the very core of the first amendment.
With these and other rulings it leaves law enforcement where they started and where they should remain, going after the pimps and human traffickers exploiting women and girls. The problems with pursuing the websites themselves are many. Beyond the fact that they are legally protected by the first amendment, attempting to shut down the platform that pimps and human traffickers post on boils down to a game of whack a mole. A great case study that exemplifies this is that of the online marketplace the silkroad. The whole alphabet soup of Federal agencies plunged untold resources and manpower into shutting down the silkroad website and prosecuting the alleged creator and administrator. In a questionable case, full of holes and government manipulation of evidence, the Feds got their man Ross Ulbricht, sent him to jail for life and shut down the site. Within a month new players and websites had filled the vacuum left behind by the silkroad. This case exemplifies the idea that by taking out one website, new sites providing the same service will quickly fill the void. This is often the case when the government attempts to regulate morality in a free market. It simply does not work. This has proved true throughout history. Bans, prohibitions, and regulations fly against the ideals of a free market and usually create more problems than they solve. Think of how well alcohol prohibition worked out, think about the drug war, think about prostitution the world's oldest profession, and then ask yourself if these are really the kind of pursuits we want our tax dollars and law enforcement manpower devoted to.