Backpage makes ads free for sex workers as police pressure ramps up

credit card with the words Free Speech printed on

reynermedia / flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Backpage is rebelling against both law enforcement pressure and credit-card shunning.

When Visa and MasterCard announced last week that they were blocking any use of their services through online classifieds site Backpage, the companies added fuel to a years-long battle over escort ads.

The credit-card companies said they were responding to pressure from Chicago-area sheriff Tom Dart, an anti-sex-trafficking activist whose previous campaigns resulted in the removal of the Erotic Services section on Craigslist. Now, none of the major credit card companies work with Backpage, which sex workers say is a major problem since the site is one of the primary places to advertise their services, and they typically use credit cards to buy online ads.

But Backpage is a step ahead, at least for now. The site quietly responded to the credit-card shunning by making ads free of charge in the adult section, allowing sex workers to continue to advertise without paying per post.

Shortly after the credit-card giants pulled the ability to pay for Backpage ads, the site sent out a message to users offering free ad postings with the promo code FREESPEECH. 

But the war against Backpage continued today, when Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called for the site to drop its adult ads section entirely, using the recent murder of an escort to justify the change.

“As we have seen through our office’s work, Backpage.com and the Internet have become increasingly popular vehicles for commercial sexual exploitation,” Healey said, according to a Boston Globe report published on Tuesday. “It is clear that Backpage must do more to end the kind of exploitation that is advertised every day on its site.”

Healey was referring specifically to the murder of Sanisha Johnson, an escort who two men allegedly booked through an ad on Backpage and then robbed shortly before shooting her to death in a hotel room. As sex worker advocates pointed out, Healey did not call for guns to stop being sold in stores even as she called for Backpage to discontinue allowing escorts to post ads.

Backpage is only the latest website to be targeted by major credit-card companies for reasons that seem to be primarily made up of morality and publicity concerns. The Internet-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a statement condemning the financial shunning of the site, comparing it to the economic blackout placed on Wikileaks following the release of U.S. State Department cables that helped give rise to Anonymous hacktivism and inspired a slew of lawsuits.

Backpage hasn’t violated the law, and so Sheriff Dart can’t use the law to take down the website. Instead he’s using a tactic we’ve seen before, getting major financial services companies to put a chokehold on controversial online content producers like WikiLeaks and independent book publisher Smashwords. 
We don’t need Visa and MasterCard to play nanny for online speech. Payment processors and banks shouldn’t be in the position of deciding what type of online content is criminal or enforcing morality for the rest of society. 

Sex worker advocacy groups chimed in to condemn the Backpage blockades as well, citing statistics that show violence against sex workers only increases if they are forced to work offline. In a joint statement issued on July 2 by the Sex Workers Project at New York’s Urban Justice Center, the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, and the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), attorneys, social workers, and trafficking survivors said that taking down Backpage’s adult ads section could backfire and cause more people to be forced into trafficking.

Demeri and other advocates report that multiple communities were deeply affected after last year’s closure of MyRedBook.com, a site where sex workers and their customers met and reviewed each other. Advocates say that like MyRedBook, BackPage.com enables people to work independently, reduces their dependence and vulnerability, and allows them to share harm reduction information online. Pushing these workers even further into the shadows cuts them off from social services and makes them more vulnerable to violence and coercion. “These efforts are misguided and will cause significantly more harm to those in the sex trade, including trafficked individuals,” said Kristen DiAngelo, a trafficking survivor who recently co-authored a study in Sacramento that showed 18% of street-based prostitutes interviewed in the last nine months had returned to the streets after the closure of MyRedBook.com. 

So far, Backpage’s adult section is still firmly intact. And sex workers continue to advertise on other sites, like Eros and Citivibe, as well as interacting with clients on popular review sites like The Erotic Review (TER). Just in case, some sex workers have posted user guides to working with cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, in the event that credit-card companies block all escort ads online. And then there’s Titcoin, which bills itself as the digital currency specifically tailored for adult industries.

With a plethora of options, it looks like the world’s oldest profession isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Photo via reynermedia/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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