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High Court Spares Backpage Adult Services Ads, but 'Censors Have Prevailed'

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

For online publishers, the law giveth and the law taketh away.

Just after the U.S. Supreme Court turned back a case challenging federal shield laws for online publisher Backpage, the embattled company shut down its adult services section under pressure from the U.S. Senate.

On Monday, the high court let stand a decision against women who sued Backpage for facilitating child sex trafficking and left in place the Communications Decency Act that has protected website operators from liability for content posted by others. Late Monday, Backpage shuttered its classified ads for adult services amidst Senate allegations that it was involved in online prostitution.

"Backpage's response wasn't to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site," the senators said in a statement. "That's not 'censorship' -- it's validation of our findings."

Senate's Backdoor

The sudden move came shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court handed Backpage its victory and after a U.S. Senate subcommittee released a report accusing Backpage of editing posts to remove evidence of child sex trafficking. The company's founders and controlling shareholders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were scheduled to testify before the subcommittee on Tuesday.

"Today, the censors have prevailed," they said in a statement. "We get it."

The founders said they were following the same course as Craigslist, which removed its adult category due to government scrutiny. "This announcement is the culmination of years of effort by government at various levels to exert pressure on and to make it too costly to continue," they said.

Free Not-for-All

Founded in 2004, Backpage is the second-largest classified ad company online after Craigslist. As that company was moving to shut down its adult services section, Backpage grew in gross revenue from $5.3 million in 2008 to $135 million in 2014.

Backpage is also the target of criminal action in California, where former Attorney General Kamala Harris filed charges of pimping and money-laundering against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin. A trial court dismissed the case in December, but federal prosecutors have filed another.

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