Backpage.com, a popular advertising website that police in Boston and elsewhere say facilitates human trafficking, has beaten back lawsuits in Massachusetts and Missouri, among other states. But on October 6, Backpage’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, was arrested on criminal charges, including pimping. Experts on commercial sexual exploitation say the arrest is a significant development in the ongoing campaign against human traffickers.
Ferrer was taken into custody in Houston on a California warrant. The attorneys general of Texas and California announced his arrest in a joint press release.
Few saw this coming.
Ferrer has long denied accusations that his website facilitated the sex trafficking of minors, and courts have sided with him. But John Montgomery, an attorney with the Boston Law firm Ropes and Grey, which sued Backpage on behalf of trafficking victims, said the wording of many ads and the methods used to pay for them have never been straightforward.
“One of the ways that Backpage participates in the trafficking of kids is they make a concerted effort in the structure of their website to protect the anonymity of traffickers, and they do it through a whole range of mechanisms allowing them to use pre-paid credit cards, not requiring age verification, allowing advertisers to obscure telephone numbers,” Montgomery explained. “Rather than saying 781, you’d say 7, you’d spell out the word eight and then add the numeral 1 so that it is more difficult to actually compare numbers.”
They say they have monitoring in place, but we found in looking at this that it’s a sham. It’s non-existent. They’re not filtering out. In fact, they’re making it easier for those people who want to traffic human beings, and that’s what this is about. We are talking about the trafficking of human beings. They make it easier for those traffickers to hide behind the walls of secrecy.
In May, Judge Richard Sterns of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ruled in favor of Backpage. He said that the first amendment protects third-party content and cited the overwhelming benefit of maintaining a “free and open internet." Backpage insisted that it had strict monitoring in place to filter out ads placed by pimps.
“I don't buy it," said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. "I don’t buy it. Seventy-five percent of cases that this office has under investigation or has prosecuted in human trafficking involved Backpage advertisements.”
Healey was among seven attorneys general that joined an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit against Backpage last year.
“They say they have monitoring in place, but we found in looking at this that it’s a sham," Healey said. "It’s non-existent. They’re not filtering out. In fact, they’re making it easier for those people who want to traffic human beings, and that’s what this is about. We are talking about the trafficking of human beings. They make it easier for those traffickers to hide behind the walls of secrecy.”
But an appellate court ruled in favor of Backpage despite the arguments by Healey and other attorneys general.
Now with the arrest of Ferrer, anti-human trafficking advocates in Massachusetts hope to accomplish what they could not several months ago: to shut down Backpage permanently. That may be a lot harder, however, than the arrest of the company’s CEO might suggest. Two years ago the company was sold to a firm offshore in the Netherlands, making a shutdown that much more difficult. In August Ropes & Gray asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review its federal lawsuit against Backpage on behalf of three child sex trafficking victims. Montgomery said that the indictment of Ferrer lends credence to “our longstanding claim that Backpage is involved in criminal conduct in violation of federal and state criminal anti-trafficking statues.”
WGBH News has written to and telephoned Backpage, but have yet to receive a response from the company.