The website Backpage.com was taken down Friday and seized by federal law enforcement authorities, according to a notice posted online.
The classifieds website has been the focus of intense scrutiny over the issue of its sex ads, which have included those involving children being trafficked by adults.
Visitors to the site Friday were greeted with an announcement that said “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action” by agencies including the FBI as well as the law enforcement wings of the U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service.
Numerous other state and federal authorities in Arizona, California and Texas also were “participating in and supporting the enforcement action,” the notice stated. It said more information would be released later by the Justice Department.
Several members of Congress issued statements applauding the seizure. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that “websites like Backpage.com facilitate sex trafficking across Minnesota and our country. The announcement by the FBI that they have seized this website and affiliated sites is long overdue, but another positive step forward in the fight against human trafficking. We must keep working to bring perpetrators to justice and get victims the support they deserve.”
Since the classifieds website Craigslist shut down its “Adult Services” section in 2010, Backpage has attracted greater prominence and income. Embedded within adult sex ads on websites are a certain number of solicitations for children, anti-sex-trafficking groups have said.
In 2016, a Senate subcommittee launched an investigation into Backpage’s role in child sex trafficking and found that it modified the wording of ads to delete references to children while still allowing the ads to stand.
A Washington Post investigation last year found that Backpage was using a contractor in the Philippines to contact prostitutes on other websites, seeking to lure their ads to Backpage and creating the ads for those prostitutes in advance.
Backpage has denied knowingly facilitating sex trafficking and has noted that it cooperates with requests from law enforcement to help track down advertisers and victims. Some in the sex worker community have said that the site provides them a safe way to meet clients and that removing the site will make their lives more difficult.
The Senate investigation led to a bill — known as FOSTA, for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act — that passed both houses of Congress last month. The bill would amend the Communications Decency Act and enable state prosecutors and victims of sex trafficking to pursue website operators in both criminal and civil court. It is awaiting President Trump’s signature.
In court filings last year, Backpage revealed that it was being investigated by a grand jury in Phoenix, where the site was originally launched as part of the New Times alternative weekly newspaper chain.
Local media reports said the FBI had raided the Arizona home of Michael Lacey, a co-founder of Backpage. The FBI confirmed that “law enforcement activity is occurring.”