Backpage Wins Court Fight Over Pimping Charges in Case with Implications for Tech
By Ethan Baron. Updated December 12, 2016.
The owners and the CEO of controversial website Backpage were exonerated of pimping and other felony charges Friday in a case that had threatened the foundations of Google Search, Facebook, Twitter and other hugely popular websites that publish third-party content.
That threat still exists, as California Attorney General Kamala Harris could appeal Friday's decision by a Superior Court judge in Sacramento.
At issue were ads for "escorts" posted on Backpage.com. Company CEO Carl Ferrer, and controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin -- both senior citizens -- were charged with pimping children under 16, along with other felonies.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman cited Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects firms that host user content online from state criminal liability.
"Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this Court, to revisit," Bowman said in his ruling.
Harris, who said she was "extremely disappointed" in the ruling, is likely to appeal, said University of Santa Clara School of Law professor Eric Goldman, who has closely followed the case. Harris' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But a successful appeal could pose serious problems for many major tech firms, Goldman said. "Every user-generated-content website has illegal content on it. If Section 230 is undermined in this case, it potentially could undermine the foundation of every user-generated-content website: Google Search, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, YouTube, Craigslist, eBay," Goldman said. "Pretty much all the sites that we enjoy the most are user-generated-content websites, all relying on Section 230."
Backpage is an online marketplace that has been fighting authorities for years over ads featuring escorts who pose provocatively and, authorities say, offer sex for sale. Harris, whose office calls the website an "online brothel," in October announced the arrest of Ferrer, 55, on felony charges of pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. Website owners Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, were criminally charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, a felony.
After Friday's ruling, Harris did not say whether she would appeal, but she pledged to explore "all legal options" in the case.
"I am extremely disappointed and disagree with the court's ruling," Harris said in a statement. "The evidence is clear -- these defendants are responsible for personally creating and publishing the content that was used to pimp and traffic victims on their websites. We will not turn a blind eye to the defendants' exploitative behavior simply because they conducted their criminal enterprise online rather than on a street corner."
The Communications Decency Act, which protects tech firms such as Facebook and Twitter from liability over content on their sites, "was not meant to be a shield from criminal prosecution for perpetrators of online brothels," Harris said.