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WaPo: Backpage Had More Influence Over Its Escort Ads Than It’s Admitted

Its executives always maintained that they weren't responsible for the prostitution ads on the listing site. This report alleges otherwise.

Going off the spreadsheets, emails, audio files, and employee manuals that serve as the backbone of this Washington Post report, Dallas-based Backpage.com had a more active role in soliciting and promoting prostitution than it has ever claimed.

Namely, The Post alleges, Backpage hired a call center operator in the Philippines to scour competitors for advertisers and customers in the sex trade. They’d offer the advertisers free ads, even giving the contractor the ability to post them on the site, “activated with one click.” The workers would also post phony ads to competitor websites, redirecting potential customers to Backpage and its sprawl of “authentic ads.” The Post says it has spreadsheets that were used to track this scheme.

Backpage chief executive Carl Ferrer.

Its three top executives—Carl Ferrer, Mike Lacey, and James Larkin—were arrested late last year on pimping and money laundering charges. But they’ve always denied that Backpage.com, which for years served as a major money maker for Dallas Observer parent company Village Voice Media, was anything more than a third-party listing site. When the company saw content regarding the sex trade, the executives said policy was to spike the ad and forward the information to police. It has avoided criminal prosecution and skirted lawsuits under the federal Communications Decency Act. Which brings us to the WaPo report, which sort of blows all that up. Here’s part of how the alleged scheme worked:

The materials seized in December from the Backpage contractor, Avion BPO, a busy phone and online operation in Laoag City, Philippines, show workers focused on adding and promoting sexual ads.

One manual apparently created for Avion employees provides step-by-step instruction on how to find ads on other websites and copy them (“you can now transfer the details of your advertisement from the other Classified Site to Backpage,” the manual states). The manuals suggest that other types of ads, such as for jobs, are also targeted, but the spreadsheets seized from Avion focus largely on sex ads.

Then, after creating a fake user profile on the other classifieds site, the worker fishes for the advertiser’s email or phone number. Various translations of “Can you meet today?,” “Nice Pictures!,” “Want to have fun?” and other messages are then sent in the appropriate language to the advertiser. When the advertiser responds to the message, the workers in the Philippines either call or email with an offer to post their ad on Backpage free of charge, with the ad already created and ready to go.

The criminal cases against the Backpage founders were always going to be tough to nail; the Communications Decency Act distances websites from the content posted by its users. And Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin have long maintained that the content posted to the site didn’t make them pimps. What The Post report does show is that staffers within Backpage—not necessarily the executives—had some influence over the strategy of sex trade advertising on the site:

“In one email, a person with a Backpage.com email address reminded Avion workers to search its competitors’ sites for the latest postings, noting that dozens can be added each day. In the email, the Backpage employee included a list of ads from Vivastreet, a similar classified ad website in Europe and Australia, including one titled “Hot and Sexy and Ready for You” and another called “Sweet Christine New in North harrow – all service for you.”

Advocates and politicians have long had Backpage in their targets. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children alleges that 73 percent of all the tips regarding child sex trafficking are tied to advertisements on the site. In January, a U.S. Senate report on the website featured a damning title: “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.” These documents may make it harder for the company to run from that allegation as it has.