The Internet may have just become a safer place for vulnerable kids, with the arrest yesterday of Carl Ferrer, the chief executive of Backpage.com. California authorities charged him with multiple counts of pimping, defined as soliciting customers for prostitutes, or profiting off of them. Charged also with pimping minors, Mr. Ferrer faces almost 22 years in prison if convicted. Arrest warrants were also issued for two founders of Backpage.com, the leading marketplace for escort ads. All three face felony conspiracy to commit pimping charges. The company's Dallas offices were also raided.
Ferrer is not accused of running a brothel or sending a few prostitutes out to earn him money. His alleged reach is larger, and more sinister. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, his company was responsible for 2,900 instances of suspected child sex trafficking since 2012 in California alone.
"Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal," California Attorney General Kamala Harris said. Her office has been investigating the website for three years, and Texas officials were also involved. "Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world's top online brothel."
A 15-year-old interviewed in the case, who had been pimped out at age 13, told investigators that Backpage.com had posted her advertisements. "I mean really, coming from someone my age, there is too much access, like it's too easy for people to get on it and post an ad," she said.
Those are the kind of vulnerable kids we at Covenant House see at our shelters, where, according to our studies with two universities, almost a quarter of the young people interviewed have been commercially sexually exploited - homeless kids, those from the foster care system, those who, because their families couldn't or wouldn't take care of them, are vulnerable to pimps who offer them love and security.
But in the next few months, Backpage's reach may be severely shortened. After the Supreme Court refused to hear Backpage's attempt to block a Senate subpoena, Ferrer and his company have until Monday to produce files on how it monitors ads, or they could face monetary fines and/or imprisonment. And Backpage is trying to defend its policies in several courtrooms around the country, facing the teenagers it helped exploit. At issue is the company's claim that it is protected by the Communications Decency Act, even though that legislation was created to keep children safe online.
We know that stopping Backpage's escort ads will not stop the sexual exploitation of young people online. We know there are countless other sites, some run by Backpage, that would gladly jump on the profits to be made from the commercialized rape of children.
But we are overjoyed that the real possibilities of arrest and felony charges now await those who prey in such a sick way on the most vulnerable kids in our society.