April 8, 2018
You’ve probably heard of Craiglist. According to Wikipedia, it is the 11th most popular website in the U.S., and lists everything from rooms to rent to any number of things for sale to job listings (I confess I have in the past posted “Help Wanted” ads on Craigslist when the firm has looked for administrative help). It also includes a “Personals” section.
You may or may not have heard of Backpage, which is sort of like Craiglist’s unwashed and unkempt cousin (and the second-largest web-based classified ad site on the internet, behind Craigslist). While Backpage also had help wanted ads and the like, it appears that its main draw was that people openly advertised sexual services on the site including, apparently, services involving child prostitution.
Until Friday. That’s when the federal law enforcement seized the website.
This raises some interesting First Amendment questions. Backpage, which in 2014 raked in $135 million in revenue (90% of which was apparently attributable to “adult ads”) maintains that the ads are free speech. And they may have a point — it would be hard to hold the owner of a public billboard criminally liable if someone were to stick a poster on the billboard advertising drugs for sale. In fact, there does not appear to be a single case on record in which a court has refused to invalidate, on First Amendment grounds, laws that penalize Backpage (or other sites) for hosting ads promoting illegal conduct. It will be interesting to see how long the Backpage site remains under the control of law enforcement before one court or another grants some sort of equitable relief to the website.
Meanwhile, over at Craiglist, they are taking no chances. The site has completely suspended its “Personals” section.