Wired Magazine Unpacks Backpage.com Scandal

Wired Magazine Unpacks Backpage.com Scandal

CYBERPSPACE — Wired has published an article offering an in-depth portrait of the founders of the notorious Backpage.com and their various business endeavors and legal entanglements prior to and including the 2018 indictment that led to their arrests

In the article titled, "Inside Backpage.com's Vicious Battle With The Feds," Wired contributor Christine Biederman delves into the worlds of co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, chronicling their provocative rise in journalism and the subsequent positioning of the pair as the perhaps undeserving scapegoats of a larger, burgeoning movement to police and censor the internet. 

"Their brand was always 'Fuck you. We don’t have friends. We have lawyers,'" said the pair's longtime advisor, attorney Don Moon. "That approach served them well for 45 years, right up until the morning Michael Lacey found himself staring into the barrel of a Glock," reveals the article. 

After taking control of the New Times, the pair set about building their empire. "Larkin worked out a lucrative revenue model, emphasizing classifieds and personals. Six years later, they began to expand. They bought up struggling weeklies in cities across the country — Denver, Houston, Miami — and transformed them into serious news organizations, hiring experienced, high-profile reporters and giving them resources to do the job."

Launched in 2004, Backpage quickly became known as "the Google of commercial sex ads," dominating its respective market and becoming a valuable resource for many.  

The government indictment, which accuses Backpage of catering to sexual predators, includes 17 "victim summaries" of women who allege to have been sexually exploited through Backpage. 

As the article notes, "In the years before their arrest, Lacey and Larkin had successfully...took refuge not only in the First Amendment but also in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Congress’ great gift to the internet. Passed in 1996, Section 230 largely immunized online platforms from liability for the user-­generated content they hosted. They were free to police offending material as they saw fit, without undue fear of prosecution by state or local authorities — as long as they didn’t create it themselves. America’s tech behemoths, from Twitter to Facebook, have often invoked Section 230 in court." 

However, following the 2018 passage of the broadly worded and problematic FOSTA/SESTA laws, which effectively shuttered sites like Craigslist and Backpage overnight and imposed fines and prison time on tech companies whose platforms were used to facilitate sex trafficking knowingly or unknowingly, the article suggests that the pair may have been used as scapegoats: an easy target to finally poke a hole in Section 230.

In conclusion, Biederman writes that "Lacey and Larkin remain convinced that the furor over sex ads is a moral panic, irrational and hysterical, cynically stoked by politicians and law enforcement," further noting that in spite of their rough-around-the-edges reputation, they're not about to surrender. 

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