Backpage.com Versus the Cook County Sheriff

September 07, 2015
 

Like almost everything else these days, prostitution and human trafficking have expanded aggressively into cyberspace. A court case in Chicago is testing an unorthodox strategy for combatting that expansion.

Apparently, prostitutes and their clients, and pimps and human traffickers, use the Internet in a variety of ways. Some of those ways involve a website called backpage.com. Backpage is essentially an online classified section. Users pay to post all sorts of ads—help wanted, items for sale, and so on. One section of the website is for so-called “adult” ads, and that section is where this story is centered.

Law-enforcement agencies say the adult section on backpage.com is a thriving virtual marketplace for buying and selling sex, and for buying and selling people—including children—for purposes of sex. Since 2009, for example, the Sheriff’s office in Cook County (which includes Chicago) has carried out more than 800 sting operations based on Backpage ads, and has made arrests for prostitution, child trafficking, or related crimes in every single one of them.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart wanted to do more, though; he wanted to go after Backpage itself. The problem was that a federal law sharply restricted his ability to hold Backpage legally responsible for harms connected to the ads on its site.

So Dart and his staff hit on an alternative way to go after Backpage, one founded on the old advice to “follow the money.” Dart sent letters to Visa and MasterCard, urging those companies not to let their credit cards be used for payments to Backpage. (American Express had already opted out of processing payments for “adult” ads on Backpage.) The letters mentioned federal laws against money laundering and included some legal-sounding language, but it wasn’t entirely clear whether Dart was threatening any official action against Visa and MasterCard if they failed to do what he wanted. It was clear that Dart intended to expose the companies to as much negative publicity as he could muster, unless they fell in line.

Within a couple of days, both Visa and MasterCard announced they would no longer process payments for Backpage ads—all ads, not just the ones in the adult section. Backpage started offering ads for free, while it scrambled to find other ways of processing payments from its customers. It’s unclear whether those ways will work, or whether the loss of the credit card companies will lead to Backpage’s demise.

Then, Backpage sued Sheriff Dart, claiming that his letters to Visa and MasterCard violated the First Amendment by using the power of his office to impose what lawyers call a “prior restraint” on free speech. Recently, the federal judge in charge of the case denied Backpage’s request for a preliminary order saying that Dart’s letter was unlawful – an order Backpage presumably hoped would help it woo Visa and MasterCard back.

The lawsuit continues, and Backpage might still get a chance to ask a jury for monetary damages. And, for now, Backpage is still up and running, including the adult section, presumably complete with ads for prostitution and human trafficking. In other words, Sheriff Dart has won some early battles, but the war isn’t over yet.

I’m Sean Anderson