(RNN) – The founders of Backpage.com, a classifieds website that is considered critical to the sex trade industry, were charged in an alleged scheme to promote prostitution and launder money, the Associated Press reports.
Michael Lacey and James Larkin, who founded the site, are charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
Five others were also indicted on federal charges in what authorities allege was a scheme to facilitate prostitution by running ads for sexual services and hiding revenues.
According to the AP, the unsealed indictment alleges that Backpage.com help customers on occasion to edit their ads to stay within legal limits while encouraging commercial sex.
The website was shut down by the government on Friday, with the website displaying a single image notice that the site and its affiliates “have been seized as part of an enforcement action” by the FBI and other federal agencies.
The FBI raided the home of the website’s founder, Michael Lacey on Friday. Seven people were indicted on 93 counts related to use of the website, local reports also said.
Backpage had drawn fierce opposition from some groups and scrutiny from lawmakers for the proliferation of child sex trafficking ads that appeared on the site, under code words like “Amber Alert.”
According to the AP, a Senate report last year said 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received involved the site.
In 2016 Sen. Kamala Harris, then attorney general of California, and Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, brought charges against Backpage.
The site shut down its “adult” section last year under legal pressure, but sex workers had largely migrated to other parts of the site.
Its closure could force more sex workers onto the street and into other precarious situations to find clients.
“When Backpage was running adult ads, we used to get tips, but that has dropped off,” Sargent Eric Quan with the San Jose Police Department’s human-trafficking unit told The New York Times last year. “It makes it a lot more complicated for us to figure out what’s going on.”
Federal legislation was passed last month, called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), targeting operations like those at Backpage.
The bill ends the immunity for websites that host, but do not create, content found to “unlawfully promote or facilitate prostitution” or “facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims.”
That most notably affects listings sites, such as Backpage or Craigslist. The law has been scrutinized for its potential First Amendment infringements, though it has not yet been signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Sarah Jamie Lewis, the executive director of a privacy advocacy nonprofit called Open Privacy, tweeted that “this action will result in trafficking being further hidden from view, endangering even more people.”
She added that it was “also likely to have major implications on other kinds of speech.”
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