Pimping charges against Backpage.com chief executive tossed out by judge

A judge has rejected state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris’ effort to prosecute the operators of Backpage.com, one of the largest online classified advertisement websites, as the “world’s top online brothel” in hosting advertisements for adult services.

The California attorney general’s office had accused the company’s chief executive and former owners of creating a website with knowledge that prostitutes and pimps use it to advertise sexual services, and filed pimping-related charges against them.

State prosecutors alleged the vast majority of the ads are for “adult services” and that the company profited from the sex trafficking of adults and children.

But in a rebuke issued Friday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael G. Bowman ruled that websites such as Backpage.com are protected from lawsuits when they publish speech posted by other people.

The judge said the Communications Decency Act of 1996 “struck a balance in favor of free speech” in keeping Internet service providers protected from liability.

In a statement, Harris said she was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling.

“The Communications Decency Act was not meant to be a shield from criminal prosecution for perpetrators of online brothels. 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,” Harris said.

“To all those who have been victimized by pimps online and trafficked through ‪Backpage.com, you are not alone and the fight for justice is not over,” she continued. “We are exploring all legal options and will continue to advocate for all victims and to aggressively prosecute those who prey on and exploit the vulnerable."

A lawyer for Backpage praised the court’s ruling.

“We’re just gratified that the court upheld the rule of law and dismissed this baseless prosecution,” said Robert Corn-Revere, a 1st Amendment attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine. “The government doesn’t get to ignore the demands of the 1st Amendment and … the Communications Decency Act.”

A lawyer and expert on Internet law, Heather Antoine, said she thinks legal immunity for online publishers is an important concept in the age of the Internet, so that websites such as Facebook and other social media websites can host free speech without fearing lawsuits regarding another person’s writings.

“We need the Internet to function to have a free society,” Antoine said in an interview. “If the state of California wants to go after these adult service rings, then that’s who they should go after. They shouldn’t go after Backpage.com because it’s technically easier for them.”

Backpage’s chief executive, Carl Ferrer, 55, was arrested in October in Houston after arriving on a flight from Amsterdam. Charges were filed on Sept. 26 against Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 67 — who had high-profile careers shepherding alternative weekly papers including the Village Voice and Phoenix New Times.

Prosecutors accused Ferrer of overseeing the company, including the screening of ads, and contended he knowingly gained money from the prostitution of women and children, according to court papers.

Backpage denied any wrongdoing and accused Harris’ prosecution as being politically motivated as she entered her final weeks in her campaign for U.S. Senate. She was elected last month.

Backpage originated in the classified section in the back of alternative newspapers. It also lists apartments, cars and jobs. State prosecutors alleged that the site earned more than 90% of its revenue from the adult section, and said some of the paid ads offer thinly veiled prostitution of women and minors, with nearly nude photos and a menu of sex in coded language.

The case was the most vigorous effort yet to blunt Backpage, founded in 2004 and now owned by a Dutch company that lists Ferrer as its sole partner.

The charges followed a three-year-long inquiry in which California authorities claimed to have found numerous instances in which the company received fees from ads for escorts younger than 18. The minors lived in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties, court files said.

A 27-year-old woman said she began using Backpage after Craigslist shuttered its escort section and the prostitution website MyRedbook.com was shut down by federal officials. A 15-year-old girl, who said she was forced into prostitution at 13 by her pimp, told authorities that Backpage “profits off of women and men.”

The company has contended that it is a host — not a publisher — of content generated by third parties, namely, consenting adults. 

ron.lin@latimes.com

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

For more Southern California news, follow us on Twitter: @ronlin and @MattHJourno

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