Review: Compelling look at prosecuting sex trafficking site

“Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker,” by Maggy Krell (New York University Press)

The final chapter in the Taking Down Backpage story has yet to be written.

Prosecutor Maggy Krell offers a compelling account of her legal strategy in going after Backpage, a website that offered sexual services; some, Krell said, from girls as young as 12.

Krell’s book illuminates how prosecutors build teams across several agencies to pursue complicated cases.

Sometimes though, the objectives of law enforcement and the justice system collide. For example, the FBI had been using Backpage as a source for helping agents find people who had been trafficked.

But the book was published too soon. Yes, the website is bolted shut and $200-plus million in profits confiscated, and, Krell hopes, distributed to helping fight online trafficking and particularly the selling of girls as if they were commodities.

However, that that money hasn’t been dispensed yet and the owners of Backpage not yet tried. Backpage chief executive Carl Ferrer has pled guilty, acknowledging that the site was designed to allow prostitution. However, a federal judge halted the criminal trial of Backpage founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin in September, saying, as the Arizona Republic reported, that the government “unfairly tainted the jury with testimony about child sex trafficking instead of focusing on the crime at hand – whether the defendants helped facilitate prosecution.”

Krell said a new trial is scheduled for February.

While the Backpage case awaits resolution, the book nonetheless exposes an unresolved issue in America: what the limits of responsibility ought to be for website operators. Backpage’s owners contended that the company wasn’t responsible for what people posted on their site; never mind that Krell amassed evidence that Backpage employees actively facilitated ads which clearly offered sexual services.

The publish date for the book is Jan. 11, the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness.

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