With the trial having been in recess over the long holiday weekend, we thought we’d take a moment to review and prepare for what is to come in the weeks ahead as the trial begins begins in earnest.
What have we learned about the Backpage defense strategy so far? Well, for one thing it seems very clear that lawyers for the accused executives of the Backpage human trafficking syndicate have very little interest in arguing the facts of the case.
And, honestly, given just how damning the facts against their clients are, it makes sense that they would take this approach. According to court transcripts, the defense’s opening statements were filled with a litany of requests for a retrial.
On Friday, prosecutors laid out for the federal jury how the executives of Backpage, contrived to corner the market on online classified ads for selling children and young women for sex. They then explained how, when confronted with obstacles from banks and law enforcement, Backpage invented workarounds in a mad rush to find a loophole in the system.
It was right after the prosecution’s opening statements that defense attorneys for the six former Backpage.com executives/employees called for a mistrial based on a throwaway line assistant U.S. Attorney, Reginald Jones, directed to the jury.
According to the defense Jones’s opening statement included a line which would lead the jury to think that if the defendants don’t testify it should be viewed with suspicion, as though it were a tacit admission that their actions were indefensible.
And what was the statement made by Jones in his opening remarks which was so disqualifying in the opinion of the defense? It was a passing reference to the fact that “these defendants can’t deny that the vast majority of ads in the adult section of Backpage.com were for prostitution.”
That was it? That was the best defense they could come up with? Demanding a mistrial for stating the obvious fact that James Larkin, Michael Lacey, and the handful of co-conspirators with them in the docket cannot deny the facts of the case?
This appears to be the best defense Backpage and its highly paid team of attorneys can muster so far and the reason is fairly obvious: these defendants can’t deny the facts, they can only try and obscure them behind a smokescreen of misdirection as they cast about desperate to find another loophole — all of which is tragically on-brand for Team Backpage.
For years sex trafficking advocates have been raising alarm bells about Backpage’s involvement in exploiting vulnerable women and underage girls.
Yet, as public interest in Backpage continues to rise the closer we draw to the long awaited trial of its top executives on a wide range of human sex trafficking-related charges, the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT) is making an urgent plea for help to care for an oftentimes forgotten population: boy victims of sex trafficking.
The Florida nonprofit, which runs the only safe house in the country dedicated to male trafficking victims under the age of 18, says that since the rise (and subsequent fall) of Backpage the number of young boys being sold for sex has only continued to grow.
As just about any anti-sex trafficking campaigner will tell you, however, when it comes to quantifying the numbers of underage boys and young men being victimized it is almost always grossly undercounted. Nilda Ortero, a mentor and advocate for male adolescent sex trafficking victims at the USIAHT's safe house, observed this of the boys in her care:
"They're not forthcoming… They were raised to state, ‘I am a man. I cannot show feelings. I cannot cry. I am not a coward.' So when it comes to them speaking about them being victimized, they’ve always been told, a man can never be raped. A boy can never be victimized. So they have that embedded into their mindset that they’re not able to speak up and scream, ‘I am being hurt, I am being victimized, help me.' So the self-disclosure is unfortunately unreported. Or even unidentified.”
In her words, one major part of the problem is that “[b]ecause they’re not receiving the support at home, they’re seeking it elsewhere. That’s what’s going to lead them into trafficking.”
Indeed, the work being done by USIAHT seems to confirm a tragic reality: young people victimized by institutionalized sexual abuse often opt to suffer in silence rather than speak out.
Backpage took advantage of marginalized children like these and led them into the illicit world of human trafficking; predicating their exploitative mistreatment upon the understanding that most would never dare come forward.
But those negatively impacted by Backpage’s legacy aren’t the only ones hesitant to share their experience. One formerly outspoken proponent of Backpage in particular has been persisting in a conspiracy of silence to the continued detriment of its voiceless victims.
Tony Ortega is one of the few Backpage insiders yet to be questioned about exactly what he knew (and still knows) regarding the crimes Backpage is alleged to have participated in. He, however, refuses to engage on the subject in any meaningful capacity.
For there to be justice for this has to change.
In the quest for accountability, Tony Ortega’s intractable silence is no longer negotiable. Join us as we urge prosecutors across the nation to compel Tony Ortega to speak.
Ordinarily, businesses have a common law duty to take reasonable steps to not cause harm to their customers, and a responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to their customers. That duty also creates an affirmative obligation in certain circumstances for a business to prevent one party using the business’s services from harming another party.
The fact of the matter is when online platforms ignore this requirement they could be held culpable under common law should it be demonstrated that they unreasonably create an unsafe environment, or unreasonably fail to prevent their users from harming others.
This is exactly what Backpage did.
With the trial of its lead executives now less than two weeks away, it’s instructive to note how courts across the nation have recently begun to adopt this line of thinking. In a June 25, 2021 decision, for example, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Facebook is not shielded by Section 230 for sex-trafficking recruitment that occurs on its platform.
As the court wrote of Section 230, that portion of the law Backpage previously argued protects them from liability associated with profiting from online sex trafficking:
“We do not understand Section 230 to create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet…Holding internet platforms accountable for the words or actions of their users is one thing, and the federal precedent uniformly dictates that Section 230 does not allow it. Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”
We believe this duty-of-care standard is a good one, and the courts are moving toward it by holding online platforms responsible for how their sites are designed and implemented.
Following any reasonable duty-of-care standard, sites like Facebook should have known they needed to take stronger steps against user-generated content advocating the violent overthrow of the government.
Likewise, Backpage should be made to understand that by exploiting the ‘safe harbor’ provisions provided under Section 230 as they knowingly allowed sexually explicit photos of 14 year olds to be posted on their site they were not harmlessly abiding the law — they were demonstrating their complicity.
”Backpage is the market leader in online commercial sex advertising.”
-2017 Senate report on Backpage.
Well before Backpage, marketing for prostitution was beginning to migrate to the internet where website operators sought to enable buyers and sellers of sex to maintain their anonymity and minimize the risk of detection by law enforcement. It wasn’t until Michael Lacey and James Larkin conspired to create Backpage, however, that the world would see just how much money this sort of ‘anonymity’ and ‘risk minimization’ could generate when applied to the global online sex trafficking market.
Named for the infamous “Back Page" of the Village Voice newspaper, Backpage quickly became the primary destination for buying and selling illegal commercial sex online, accounting for 80 percent or more of all revenue from online commercial sex advertising in the United States. What is more, according to the Senate’s 2017 report, virtually all of Backpage’s net revenue — more than 99 percent — was directly attributable to advertisements appearing in its adult category.
Its net profit in 2015 alone was estimated at $135 million; Backpage and its affiliates were estimated to be valued at more than $600 million. By its final year, Backpage was operating in 97 countries and 943 geographic locations across six continents globally.
Although Backpage allowed individuals to post free classified advertisements around the world for lawful consumer products such as used bicycles and furniture in many different categories across the website, the focus of its business from the beginning had been the unlawful commercial sex industry. Notably, these advertisements — which would appear in Backpage’s so-called ‘adult entertainment’ category — were the only ones for which Backpage charged a fee to make a posting. Advertisements for illegal commercial sex, such as sex with children, were routinely posted in this category.
The Senate’s report of 2017 estimated that tens of thousands of children were trafficked for sex on Backpage annually in the United States alone, and that the average age of first exploitation for these children was only 15 years old. That fact alone would seem enough to encourage material witnesses to come forward.
And yet, Tony Ortega, one time Editor-At-Large of the Village Voice and Backpage’s unofficial mouthpiece, refused then — as he refuses now — to comment on the Senate’s report on Backpage.
Just as Ortega refused to speak on Backpage’s role as “the market leader” in global sex trafficking.
Just as Ortega refuses to speak on the role he may have played in helping Backpage cover its tracks.
This silence must not be allowed to continue. Join us in urging prosectors to interview Tony Ortega, the one remaining member of Backpage’s executive inner circle yet to speak to officers of the court.
In the 2016 case of Doe v. Backpage.com, the first circuit upheld the dismissal of an action against Backpage under rule 12(b)(6) on the ground, among other things, that Backpage was not responsible for injuries to children trafficked on its website simply because its conduct as a publisher made sex trafficking easier.
This reasoning fell in line with the story Tony Ortega was working to promote on behalf of Backpage through the editorial pages of the Village Voice in support of Backpage. And indeed, the court’s opinion at the time seemed to based on the best available information concerning Backpage’s dealings, most of which was self-reported by Backpage itself.
But all that was about to change.
Only months later in January 2017, the U.S. Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations (Senate Subcommittee) issued a fifty-three page report which detailed Backpage’s “active participation” in the illegal commercial sex business occurring on their online platform. After conducting their 20-month investigation into Backpage and its practices and reviewing over one million pages of documents, the Senate Subcommittee concluded, inter alia, that Backpage knowingly engaged in facilitating prostitution and child sex trafficking by a variety of means.
Indeed, among its most pernicious practices, Backpage systematically employed both electronic and manual means to alter language proposing illegal sexual transactions and to remove images to sanitize the advertisements so that they appeared to involve adults rather than children
This practice of modifying advertisements, along with other conduct detailed in the Senate report, was intended to minimize the risk of law enforcement detection of sex trafficking of minors, and thus to grow the advertising volume, market share, and profitability of the Backpage enterprise.
It is worth noting that the Senate’s detailed report based its findings not on the ‘self-reporting’ of its executive board but on Backpage’s own conduct, supported by 839 pages of internal Backpage communications, corporate financial documents, and company policies and guidelines regarding its operations to its report.
For the first time on a national stage, this report revealed that Backpage knew or had reason to know that multiple subjects of the advertisements were children at the time those ads were run. The report went on to illuminate how Backpage intentionally facilitated the sale of plaintiffs for illegal sex by, among other things, altering the content of the advertisements offering them for sale to convey the false impression that plaintiffs were adults.
The Senate’s evaluation made clear that as a result of Backpage’s practices, and the in/action of its executives, the duration and frequency of the exploitation of children and marginalized adults was substantially increased.
From the day Backpage was launched back in 2004 Tony Ortega began what appears to have been an orchestrated strategy of obfuscation and misdirection from the editorial pages of its sister company, the Village Voice.
For years Backpage and its leadership had dragged its feet and refused to meaningfully engage with the very serious charges being levied against it.
Instead, Backpage parroted a defense very much like the one Tony Ortega had been working to popularize for years on behalf of Backpage. The case Ortega was working to establish was that the growing public outrage against Backpage and its executive board was in reality a ploy by ‘feminists, religious zealots, and liberal campaigners’ to undermine its business model.
Backpage wasn’t running a platform built to extravagantly profit off human sex trafficking, Ortega argued, it was engaged in the noble pursuit of free speech and set forth in First Amendment to the Constitution.
On the basis of this rationale Backpage attempted to file its own suit against Missouri’s Attorney General, who had begun investigating Backpage in May of 2017. The lawsuit, filed in July of that same year, claimed the investigation lead by Missouri’s AG violated Backpage’s First Amendment rights, and that its demands for more than seven years of records constituted unreasonable search and seizure.
Backpage would go on to claim that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits state-law civil or criminal claims against internet websites and publishers based on content created by third parties.
As Backpage’s suit read in part,
“Considered the most important law in the country protecting free speech online and fostering development of the Internet unfettered by government interference or regulation (as Congress expressly intended), Section 230 has been applied in over 300 cases to hold websites immune and state laws preempted.”
The AG responded calling the lawsuit meritless and adding, “[i]t is a shameless attempt to stop our investigation and keep my office and the people of Missouri from getting the truth about Backpage.”
The 34-page motion, part of almost 400 pages of evidence submitted to the court, stated that substantial and compelling evidence shows a direct link between Backpage and the sex industry. It also cited the U.S. Senate subcommittee’s finding that “Backpage is involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives from the general public.”
The fact of the matter is that federal law does not protect illegal trafficking activities. The First Amendment does not protect illegal trafficking activities. It does not protect websites that solicit illegal ads. Nor does it protect people who create those ads and seek to profit from them.
The abundance of evidence we have seen in the 17 years since its creation, however, suggests that Backpage was engaged in doing all of the above.
Today we are still being stonewalled by Tony Ortega and Backpage.com's other executives.
With less than 25 days until the trial of Backpage’s other executives, it is now urgent that Tony Ortega speaks on the record. The truth about Backpage must be made clear, and there are few people who understood its inner workings better than the man who helped conceptualize its would-be defense.
With the expected trial date of Backpage’s top executives approaching, survivors and the families of its many victims remain hopeful that, at last, a long over-due justice may be in their future.
It is worth noting, however, that the upcoming trial in Arizona of Michael Lacey and James Larkin won’t be the first time the two men behind the largest online human sex trafficking portal the world have been in the docket.
In 2017 the US District Court, District of Massachusetts, heard a case filed under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act against Backpage and its principals for aiding, supporting, and facilitating the sexual exploitation of three female plaintiffs.
The complaint, filed in June of 2017, may offer something of a window into what proceedings might look like for upcoming trial of Lacey and Larkin. The introductory language of the lawsuit is illustrative of how prosecutors then viewed the allegations against Backpage.
“Backpage is a criminal enterprise that owns and operates a global online marketplace that derives its revenue principally from illegal commercial sex, including sex with children. Defendants operate Backpage.com, a website, as well as other affiliated websites, that were intentionally designed to attract advertisements for illegal commercial sex, and that have succeeded in attracting more than 80 percent of the market for such advertising nationally.”
The complaint went on to identify Backpage defendants as having, “aggressively maintained to the public, law enforcement, and the courts that Backpage.com is a neutral forum that has attracted adult content, and that it is a mere publisher that cannot be held responsible for any illegal conduct occurring on the website.”
This ‘neutral forum’ defense was initially successful in muddying the public’s perception surrounding attempts to directly challenge Backpage.’ Indeed, using his position as Editor-At-Large at the Village Voice — a sister company of Backpage.com —Tony Ortega tried to push this idea in an attempt to steer public sympathy away from victims of the rampant sex trafficking taking place on the Backpage platform and redirect it instead toward the “mere publisher” profiting off it all to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the time, Ortega’s editorials in defense of Backpage were brazen attempts to reframe the issue and downplay the facts behind the allegations. In the intervening years since Backpage’s forced closure, however, prosecutors have armed themselves with mountains of new evidence against Backpage and its executives.
Whether or not Backpage holds with a rehash of its ‘neutral forum’ argument remains to be seen. What is certain is that, this time around, the whole country will be watching and no amount of bad faith editorialization by Tony Ortega, or anyone on the Backpage payroll, can change the facts as they stand.
‘First he got them hooked on heroin and crack cocaine then he withheld the drugs to make them sick and control them. It was all part of a bigger plan to turn them into sex slaves.’ That is how federal authorities described Jhamall McGaughy, 39, of Detroit, shortly before he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison last week.
McGaughty was charged with running a sex trafficking operation through Backpage that preyed on at least six women, including one who said she was once held against her will for refusing to take drugs. According to court records, McGaughy had one of his friends sit on her chest while he used a syringe to inject heroin into her neck.
Another woman said that McGaughy raped her in 2017 after forcing her to go on a “date” with a man where a john paid her to perform a sex act in a stairwell. After that date, court records state, McGaughy picked the victim up in his truck, took the money that she had earned and told her: "I know you are working for the FBI. You know you belong to me."
Then he raped her again.
Tragically, the shameful history of Backpage is littered with stories of vicious Backpage pimps like McGaughy, who would use the infamous online sex trafficking platform to post explicit ads of their victims.
One victim told authorities that she tried to escape several times, but that McGaughy always found her.
According to federal prosecutors, McGaughy's crimes, like the crimes of so many would-be Backpage pimps, were about control and violence. They said McGaughy admitted that he recruited women who he knew struggled with drug addictions and he used that addiction to line his own pockets. He knew that the women would suffer from excruciating withdrawal symptoms, known as being “dope-sick,” if they did not receive regular doses of drugs, they said. And so he manipulated the supply of drugs to keep them on the edge so that they would follow his orders to engage in sex trafficking.
And there were no shortage of beatings. Authorities said if the women tried to escape his control, McGaughy would assault them, punch them, kick them and choke them until they bent to his will.
As acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in announcing the sentence,
“McGaughy’s cruel acts of physical and emotional abuse, and his ruthless exploitation of these women for profit are contemptible… The 180-month sentence imposed on McGaughy will hopefully help bring closure to the victims in this case.”
While McGaughy’s conviction may bring a measure of closure to those directly impacted by his actions, there are countless other victims and survivors of Backpage who have yet to receive justice. A handful of top Backpage executives await trial next month but other Backpage insiders like Tony Ortega, whose inactions potentially harmed a far greater number of people, are working hard to keep the American public in the dark about the roles they played in keeping Backpage in business for so long.
This blog, and the movement it is inspiring, is here to insure this isn’t allowed to happen. Men like Tony Ortega must not be allowed to hide their heads in the sand any longer, stonewalling authorities and refusing to speak up about what they know of Backpage’s past practices.
The time for silence is passed. Justice for Backpage’s victims demands it.
On the very day that Backpage brought forward its suit against the Attorney General of Missouri’s office in July of 2017 for what it claimed was an unreasonable investigation into its practices, The Washington Post published a stunning exposé concluding that Backpage was, in fact, creating and controlling the content of human-trafficking ads on its website.
Noting that “Backpage’s attorneys have deceived federal courts on this issue for years,” the AG’s motion to the court to dismiss Backpage’s lawsuit with prejudice cited the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report released Jan. 9 of that year. It detailed Backpage’s direct involvement in creating and attempting to sanitize the langue used in its sex trafficking ads.
The Subcommittee’s report further described how Backpage had implemented a sophisticated and wide-ranging system by which the company attempt to hide their tracks in the following ways:
(1) By identifying posts involving patently illegal commercial sex, including sexual exploitation of minors.
(2) By revising the content of those posts to avoid attention from law enforcement, but without preventing potential buyers from realizing that the posts involve illegal commercial sex; and then
(3) By re-posting the advertisements on Backpage’s website rather than blocking them or contacting law enforcement.
It was the determination of the Subcommittee that search terms used by Backpage to identify and ‘scrub’ its advertisements, highlighted the depraved nature of the ‘services’ that Backpage actively concealed, including numerous buzzwords known to be associated with sex trafficking of minors.
Specifically, the motion stated that beginning in 2010 Backpage automatically deleted words including “Lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” “young,” “little girl,” “teen,” “fresh,” “innocent,” “school girl,” and “Amber Alert” — then published the edited versions of the ads on its website.
The motion went on to conclude:
“Rather than reporting this criminal activity to law enforcement, Backpage took steps to conceal the posts’ illegality and then published them, earning tens of millions of dollars in the process.”
Indeed, the Attorney General made his view on the matter abundantly clear to reporters, “It is time for Backpage to stop stonewalling and come forward with the truth, because I can promise you I’m not going to stop until I get it.”
Today, however, Backpage continues its legacy of recalcitrant obstructionism.
Even as some of its top executives await trial next month, one large-looming omission stands above them all. He is Tony Ortega, former Editor-In-Chief of the Village Voice, who acted as Backpage’s unofficial spokesman and most public defender. What did Tony Ortega know about the inner workings of Backpage and why does he continue to refuse to come forward on behalf of those victimized?
At the time of this writing these questions remain unanswered but, like Missouri’s Attorney General, we pledge to not stop until we get the truth.
After three Houston-area lawsuits were filed against Facebook alleging sex traffickers used its platform to commit crimes, Facebook asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene. In response, the highest court in Texas ruled that Facebook could be held liable for sex traffickers using its platform, arguing Facebook isn’t a “lawless no-man’s-land.”
Much like the one time online sex trafficking behemoth Backpage.com, Facebook had argued for years that it’s immune from prosecution because of Section 230, a federal regulation that has broadly been used by courts to grant immunity to social media companies when publishing, un-publishing or censoring content on their platforms.
The state Supreme Court, however, rejected Facebook’s argument, noting a marked shift from previous court rulings.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton applauded the court’s decision, noting that the federal Communications Decency Act does not leave states powerless to impose liability on websites that knowingly benefit from participation in human trafficking.
As Paxton said in a statement:
“Big Tech repeatedly acts as if they are above the law and are able to wipe their hands clean of the evil, like human trafficking, that they allow their platforms to host. Texas’ battle against modern-day slavery will not allow this injustice, and we will hold all parties in this reprehensible operation accountable. The child victims in this case deserve more; the parents of these victims deserve more; and Texas deserves more.”
Last year, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas cited specific rulings he found to be problematic, including a case in which victims of human trafficking were denied their day in court because of how Section 230 was interpreted. In a 2016 California lawsuit against Backpage, victims argued the site allowed users to post classified ads for “escorts” and deliberately structured its website to facilitate illegal human trafficking. A California court ruled against the victims saying Section 230 protected Backpage.
Now, the Texas Supreme Court is suggesting Section 230 immunity will likely be an issue the U.S. Supreme Court “may soon take up. Justice Thomas may be correct that many courts interpreting section 230 have ‘filter[ed] their decisions through . . . policy argument[s]’ or otherwise ‘emphasized nontextual’ considerations.”
As the majority writes:
“We do not understand Section 230 to ‘create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet’ in which states are powerless to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking. Holding internet platforms accountable for words or actions of their users is one thing, and the federal precedent uniformly dictates that section 230 does not allow it. Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”
Holding online platforms responsible for their misdeeds is precisely why this forum exists. As Facebook begins to face new challenges for the part they’ve played in the mainstreaming of this vile practice, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that building a platform designed from the beginning to profit off the human sex trafficking trade appears to have been Backpage’s intended strategy all along.
The trial of several key Backpage executives is slated to begin 32 days from the publication of this post and yet —mind-bogglingly — the man believed by many to be among its top strategists remains un-indicted, un-subpoenaed, and uncharged. We ask for your help in joining us to change that.
Back in 2008, when Britney Spears was first placed under a conservatorship at the petition of her father, Jamie Spears, the judge ruled she was not capable of hiring her own counsel. Now, for the past 13 years she has been advised by the same man, Samuel D. Ingham III. But has this attorney, not chosen by her, had her best interests at heart?
These are some of the questions now being raised by Britney’s bombshell testimony at last Wednesday’s conservatorship hearing, in which she said her father had used the conservatorship to keep her on drugs, to force her to keep performing when she wanted to stop. While legal scholars have primarily speculated on whether the judge will lift her restrictions or end the conservatorship, what stood out to observers like us was when she likened her treatment to ”sex trafficking.”
Spears stated, “I worked seven days a week, no days off, which in California the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking — making anyone work, work against their will, taking all their possessions away: credit card, cash, phone, passport, car and placing them in a home where they work with the people who live with them.”
Her comparison is an apt one. Indeed, in her testimony Spears echoed the reservations felt by many survivors of human trafficking, explaining that part of the reason she never came forward is that she was afraid no one would believe her. Tragically, this is a refrain we hear time and again from survivors of Backpage’s human trafficking and the families of its victims.
The callousness of Spear’s personal counsel through all this — as he seemingly worked against the best interests of his client — finds eerie parallel in both the behavior and attitude of the backpage.com and Village Voice leadership. Likewise, they all turned a blind eye to the suffering of those to whom they had a professional responsibility. And they did so in the name of looking out for the Backpage empire and its lucrative bottom line.
The reality is wherever human beings are seen as commodities to be bought, sold, and exploited there will be opportunists who act upon their worst impulses in the hopes of capitalizing on human misery for personal gain. The good news, however, is that there will always be more of us willing to speak out against these injustices than there are those who would seek to impose them.
In 2011, then-Attorney General of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, led twenty-one states in calling on Backpage to close its adult services section to fight prostitution, human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.
Suspicion surrounding Backpage’s mis/management of sexually explicit advertisements, some involving grade-school aged children, had been building in legal circles for years. Though it would take another seven years before the FBI would raid and shutter the notorious sex trafficking portal, this initiative spearheaded by Blumenthal would signal the beginning of the end for Backpage.
The twenty-one AGs signed a letter to Village Voice and its incalcitrant editor Tony Ortega. Its text read in part: “We are writing to request that you immediately take down the adult services portion of backpage. We believe that ads for prostitution– including ads trafficking children– are rampant on the site …In our view, it is time for the company to… take immediate action to end the misery of the women and children who may be exploited and victimized by these ads…, no amount of money can justify the scourge of illegal prostitution, and the misery of the women and children who will continue to be victimized, in the marketplace provided by Backpage.”
Tony Ortega refused to speak to these allegations at the time. Instead Ortega offered rehashed, pro-corporate talking points in the Voice’s Op-ed section, bizarrely insisting Backpage’s exploitation of society’s most vulnerable was first and foremost an issue of protected speech.
Subsequently, on August 22, 2011, a letter signed by eight mayors of Washington State cities was sent to Jim Larkin, CEO, Village Voice Media: “We, the undersigned mayors of cities in Washington State, write to urge you to take steps to prevent the use of Backpage.com for underage sex trafficking by requiring in-person verification of any prospective escort advertiser’s ID, as well as proof of identity and age for anyone pictured in an escort ad. There is an urgent need to act quickly, as our cities have continued to find advertisements on your site that reflect underage sex trafficking in recent weeks…Since the beginning of 2010, twenty-two children advertised on Backpage.com were recovered by the Seattle Police Department. The Tacoma Police Department reports that they are currently working on 16 cases of juvenile prostitution involving 14 persons who had Backpage.com ads.We urge you to take quick action and help us address underage sex trafficking by requiring photo ID.”
Still Tony Ortega refused to address the concerns government officials were identifying. Today he continues to refuse to speak on the subject.
By the last day of August 2011, forty-five attorneys general (45!!) demanded that Village Voice’s Backpage.com back up its dubious claims that it was enforcing policies to prevent child sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The letter to Village Voice’s Backpage.com criticized Backpage’s efforts as ineffective and demanded an answer.
This demand, too, was met with more silence and further stonewalling from Village Voice editor, Tony Ortega.
Now, a decade on, the time for belligerent silence is long past. It is no longer acceptable that men like Tony Ortega, who many argue holds privileged knowledge of Backpage’s inner-workings, should be given a free pass to skirt their civic responsibility.
For there to be justice for the victims and survivors of Backpage human trafficking Tony Ortega must be compelled to share what he knows, what he saw, and — to the extent he may have helped orchestrate its myriad law-dodging strategies — held to account for the part he played in Backpage’s illegal sex trade operation.
As scrutiny of Backpage’s involvement in sex trafficking began gaining traction in the halls of government, various civil groups were stepping up their fight against child prostitution and slavery.
Groups like the Polaris Project “For A World Without Slavery”, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights “advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls”, the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Organization for Women began turning up the heat, demanding immediate action be taken to stop Backpage from its sex slave trade profiteering.
For his part, Tony Ortega claimed the opposition to Backpage was little more than a small group of ‘political activists, feminists and religious zealots’. Had Ortega taken a look at the growing list of groups anti-sex trafficking advocates like Ashton Kutcher were busy organizing, however, he might not have been so glibly dismissive of the monumental sea change rising in the public consciousness.
In 2011 Kutcher had been running a campaign of “Real Men” to address the issue of sex trafficking. The campaign featured humorous videos of celebrities such as Sean Penn, Jamie Foxx and Justin Timberlake. Conspicuously absent from this list of “Real Men” opposing the modern day slave trade by multiple million dollar corporations was Tony Ortega.
We want to know why.
Why was Tony Ortega so dead set on remaining silent in the face of so much human suffering? And, on those rare occasions when he did address the issue, why frame the debate as a free speech issue? In light of all we now know about what was going on behind closed doors among the Backpage executive team, we want to know why Tony Ortega took such pains to take the side of the oppressors over the oppressed.
Is there reason to believe that Tony Ortega had, or continues to have, self-interested motives in keeping the truth behind Backpage from coming to light?
Criminal justice professor at Georgia State University during the Backpage era, Mary Ann Finn, noted at the time how the Village Voice under Tony Ortega seemed myopically preoccupied by arrest statistics — a mere 827 arrests for child prostitution nationally during the first decade of the 2000’s, as the Voice would cajoling remind its readers.
“This significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests,” Finn observed, suggesting that the Village Voice editorial board may have had “a vested interest in minimizing the problem.”
With Tony Ortega serving as its Editor-in-chief, it should come as no surprise that questions abound to this day as to just how vested Village Voice’s interests were.
There is only one way to get to truth of the matter. Tony Ortega must come forward, willingly or no, and relate to the court what he knew of Backpage behind-the-scenes and how he may have played a significant role participating in its online sex trafficking empire.
BREAKING NEWS - The Texas Supreme Court has just ruled that federal law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been used by sites like Backpage, Craigslist and Facebook to protect themselves from liability for third-party content published on their platforms, will no longer insulate corporations online from sex-trafficking lawsuits that are based on state statutes.
In a June 25 opinion, the state supreme court allowed the statutory claim by three Houston women who alleged that their abusers recruited them as teenagers through Facebook. The Texas law creates a civil cause of action for intentionally or knowingly benefiting from participation in sex trafficking.
In the landmark ruling the court said the federal law doesn’t bar the statutory claim because the three lawsuits allege “overt acts by Facebook encouraging the use of its platforms for sex trafficking.”
In the words of the state supreme court:
“We do not understand Section 230 to ‘create a lawless no-man’s-land on the internet’ in which states are powerless to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking.”
The impact of this decision is indicative of a seismic shift long overdue in the prosecution of online sex traffickers and points toward a renewed hope of justice for victims and survivors.
In this case, two plaintiffs were age 14, and a third was age 15 when they were contacted by users of Facebook and Instagram, both of which are owned by Facebook. The men who contacted them, who were “well over” age 18, flattered the girls and made false promises of a better life, the suits said. The men eventually used Instagram and Backpage.com to advertise the girls as prostitutes.
Just like Backpage under Tony Ortega’s editorial control, these suits alleged that Facebook knowingly fostered “a breeding ground” for sex traffickers, earned advertising revenue by extending its user base to include sex traffickers, increased profits by not using its advertising space for announcements warning of the dangers, and increased profit margins by failing to implement safeguards regarding verification of user identities.
The court noted that the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, passed in 2018, amended Section 230 to allow civil liability when websites violate federal human-trafficking laws.
Facebook and the women had all argued that the statute supported their positions in the case. The court sided with the plaintiffs, who argued that the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act was a rule of construction that the Communications Decency Act never barred civil trafficking claims based on state and federal statutes.
Stay tuned for more as this story develops.
Tony Ortega may not be a name that leaps to mind whenever the subject of sex trafficking arises but if you’ve followed the saga of the upcoming Backpage trial you may already be familiar with the behind-the-scenes work he was involved in on behalf of Backpage during the tenure of his leadership position at the Village Voice.
Michael Lacey and James Larkin, the driving force behind Village Voice Media, installed Tony Ortega Editor-At-Large of the flagship paper in order to downplay the seriousness of child sex trafficking in general and discredit those in the media willing to investigate Backpage’s connection with human sex trafficking in general.
From the pages of the Village Voice, Ortega attempted to draw imagined parallels between the ‘myth’ of child sex trafficking in America and what he tellingly refers to as other ‘non-existent threats’ like pedophilloic day care workers and devil worshipping child murders.
On July 6, 2011 entitled Tony wrote in a series he published called, “The Truth About Sex Trafficking”:
“Gripped by mass fear, it took the public some time to wake up from that fever dream. About the same time, America was hyperventilating over another nonexistent threat: satanic cults that, experts swore, were sacrificing thousands of victims across America. Remember that one?”
Ridiculous accusations of national mass delusion and moral pearl-clutching notwithstanding, the argument Tony Ortega was seeking to make was deadly serious: sex trafficking was an imagined, overblown crisis propagated by a small minority of political activists which only the most credulous could believe.
In particular there was one ‘activist’ Tony Ortega chose to single out,“…one of the most visible enablers in this national fantasy has been young CNN reporter Amber Lyon.”
A day later, July 7th 2011, The Phoenix New Times would run a similar story attributed to Jonathan McNamara entitled, “CNN Reporter Amber Lyon Fuels Paranoia Over Underage Sex Trafficking”.
This was hardly a coincidence.
Tony Ortega — who previously worked as Editor-in-Chief for the Phoenix New Times — had just orchestrated a coordinated, back-channel effort to discredit Amber Lyon in the wake her exposé on Backpage child sex trafficking.
“CNN leads the media's mass paranoia over a nonexistent epidemic. I remember the last couple of mass panics. Do you?”
With these words Tony Ortega announced to the world which side of the fight against sex trafficking with which he and his bosses at Village Voice Media would align themselves. The year was 2011 and Backpage, the infamous online classified section-turned-international-human-trafficking-hub, had been in operation for seven years earning hundreds of millions of dollars selling marginalized women and underage girls for sex annually.
CNN’s Special Investigations and Documentary correspondent Amber Lyon had just run on child sex trafficking entitled “Selling the Girl Next Door”. The hour-long documentary gave viewers a raw view into the disturbing world of underage American girls caught up in the violent sex trade.
Taking his cues from the uppermost echelons of the Backpage corporate structure, Tony Ortega set himself to the task of using his position as Editor-At-Large at the Village Voice to articulate Backpage’s bad-faith strategy.
“What's there to panic about today?” Tony mused. “A small group of political activists is quite ready to provide the answer. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are being told that there's a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: “trafficking.”
“The actual data behind this "epidemic" is wanting in the extreme,” Ortega continued, pressing his attack. “It involves guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work. And one of the most visible enablers in this national fantasy has been young CNN reporter Amber Lyon.”
Tony Ortega, through his connections with Backpage and by virtue of his editorial control, made it his goal to demonize and discredit those taking a stand against human sex trafficking.
CNN’s “young” Amber Lyon was his merely first target.
By the early 2000s, the age of the Internet was well underway and with it sites like Craigslist were exploding in popularity. Some of these sites offered free classified ads which in the eyes of the men behind Village Voice Media (VVM), Michael Lacy and James Larkin, posed a significantly disruptive threat to their business model.
Unlike Craigslist, however, Lacey and Larkin depended on classified advertising revenue for the survival of their growing media empire, and nothing was generating cash as quickly or consistently as the thinly-veiled sex trafficking ad for “escorts” offering a range of prostitution related services which filled the “Adult Classified” section of their crown jewel, the Manhattan-based alternative weekly newspaper Village Voice.
In response Lacey and Larkin sought to address this threat by creating an online spin-off of the Voice’s “Adult Section” called Backpage. Their decision to do so was later described in an internal company memo as follows:
"In 2004, in response to the Craigslist threat that was decimating daily newspapers, VVM launched its own online classified site, Backpage.com, named after the back page of VVM's print publication [the Village Voice].”
During its first few years, Backpage accounted for only a fraction of VVMH's overall revenue. In January 2006, for example, VVMH estimated that Backpage supplied only 1% of its overall advertising revenue but noted that Backpage had "tremendous upside potential”.
This prediction would prove to be prophetic. By 2008, its forth year of operation, Backpage was generating over $5 million in annual profit. By its fifth year that annual profit figure had doubled to over $10 million. And it showing no signs of slowing.
What had changed for Backpage in the run-up to its explosion in popularity in 2008? For one they had installed a new Editor-At-Large at the Village Voice only a year prior; one who was friendly to the interests and objectives of Lacey and Larkin and would provide them with articles and editorials designed to downplay the seriousness of human sex trafficking.
That man was Tony Ortega and his job was to protect Backpage.
Michael Lacey and James Larkin first founded the Phoenix New Times in Arizona in 1970. The spring of that year had seen the Kent State shootings and Lacey and Larkin expressed a belief that their alternative newspaper would function as a ‘countercultural response’.
It was within this context of contrarian protest that Lacey and Larkin came to know Tony Ortega, the man who was to become their public mouthpiece and — through his editorial control of the Village Voice — their most bullish public defender.
Tony Ortega was hired by Lacey and Larkin in 1995 and quickly made a name for himself as a “fixer” tasked to move throughout the country to turnaround weekly newspapers acquired by Lacey and Larkin. Over time, Lacey and Larkin gained control of several other alternative newspapers which they came to operate through an entity called Village Voice Media Holdings (“VVMH”).
It was no secret that publications within the VVMH newspaper chain were known to feature illegal prostitution ads. In 1987, the Second Circuit of Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction of the operator of a prostitution business, masquerading as a massage parlor, for publishing ads in the the Village Voice’s classified section.
That case, United States V. Sigalow, 812 F.2d 783, had for the first time drawn a straight line from Lacey and Larkin’s flag ship paper to the world of human sex trafficking.
In 2007, twenty years after this ruling, Michael Lacey and James Larkin installed Tony Ortega as the Voice’s Editor-At-Large.
The fact that Village Voice Media was being used to promote sex trafficking had been known to Michael Lacey and James Larkin for at least two decades. It is not unreasonable to assume the Voice’s corporate policy of promoting sex trafficking ads was also understood and implemented by the Editor-At-Large Lacey and Larkin had handpicked for the job.
Currently, Lacey, Larkin and other senior executives await trial on a 100-count indictment filed by federal prosecutors which outlines a conspiracy among executives and employees to court advertising dollars from prostitutes and pimps.
The indictment also accuses the executives of laundering money by using cryptocurrency and other methods. The only Village Voice Media insider not indicted is Tony Ortega.
Tony Ortega has so far refused to speak openly on the subject and has yet to be subject to deposition, despite his editorial role as overseer of all content published in the pages of the Village Voice classified section from 2007 to 2012.
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