Indianapolis vice cop says SESTA/FOSTA closure of Backpage has ‘blinded’ investigators

Online sex market Backpage was seized in April following new regulation intended to stem human trafficking, but the results haven’t been entirely positive. This story of Indianapolis cops reverting to pre-web tactics for catching pimps and others in the sex trade shows how the closure has taken away a valuable tool for keeping tabs on the unsavory but ineradicable industry.

Backpage, where prostitutes would list themselves and attract customers, let the whole business take place rather in gig economy fashion rather than out on the street.

As controversial as the sex industry is, it’s not going anywhere and at the very least most of us can agree that it should at least be conducted as safely as possible. And Backpage did at least provide some level of safety and regularity to it, even if it also contributed to worse issues like sex trafficking.

“We used to look at Backpage as a trap for human traffickers and pimps,” explained undercover vice investigator John Daggy to RTV6. “We would subpoena the ads and it would tell a lot of the story. Now, since it has gone down, we’re getting late reports of them and we don’t have much to go by.”

As evidence, in 2017 Indianapolis cops charged four pimps using Backpage data, and dozens of prostitution cases used it as well. But this year only one pimp has been charged, caught via old-school undercover work: a cop posing as a prospective prostitute.

That may be what the movies present vice investigations as, but the truth is that kind of work is extremely dangerous, not to mention time-consuming and difficult. Having a nice digital trail to follow or cite in court was clearly a godsend.

As critics noted earlier this year, SESTA/FOSTA has good intentions but a seriously flawed execution resulting in numerous unforeseen consequences. This decline in police effectiveness in vice investigations is one of them.

“I get the reasoning behind it, and the ethics behind it,” Daggy said. “However, it has blinded us.”

You should read the rest of the story, as it has context from others and is part of a series on the sex trade in the city.

Backpage pleads guilty to sex trafficking, CEO faces up to 5 years for money laundering

Backpage .com, for years the primary online platform for the sex trade, has pleaded guilty as a company to charges of sex trafficking in Texas, the state’s attorney general announced today. Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to money laundering, for which he may be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.

The site was seized last week and a 93-count indictment issued days later.

Ferrer was arrested back in 2016, and will be sentenced “once he’s fulfilled the terms of his plea agreement.”

The Texas AG’s office does not elaborate beyond the charges mentioned in the press release, except to say that Ferrer’s cooperation could lead to new ones. Considering the site was an international and popular platform for all kinds of sex-related commerce — allegedly including child trafficking — it seems likely there’s far more yet to come, including pleas for similar crimes in different jurisdictions.

The execution of this strike against Backpage, the culmination of an 18-month investigation (beginning around the arrest of Ferrer), is coincident but not directly related to the passage and signing of FOSTA. The bill, just this week signed into law, effectively removes the “safe harbor” enjoyed by internet companies protecting them from having liability for the actions of their users. Under FOSTA, a company like Craigslist would be responsible if, for example, a prostitute listed their services on the site.

Unsurprisingly Craigslist and other sites have removed listings or services that may put them at risk under FOSTA, prompting criticism from the more legitimate sides of the sex industry that relied on them.