NYT: Backpage.com Adult Ads Are Free Speech, Dude

Backpage confidential

Is the effort to shut down Backpage.com's adult services ads censorship?

I posted before on the effort by attorneys general around the nation, including Arkansas’ own Dustin McDaniel, to force the online classified operation Backpage.com to shut down their “Adult Services” ad section.

That section features ads for escorts, body rubs and other things that just sound amazing. However, the AGs beg to differ: they say the “Adult Services” section facilitates prostitution and sex trafficking. Uh oh!

Previously, Backpage.com fired back with a feisty 10-page letter from counsel (PDF), arguing that they work closely with law enforcement agencies to combat potential exploitation, and anyway, their operation is protected under the First Amendment.

In a terrific opinion piece today, the New York Times’ media watcher David Carr weighs in with a defense of Backpage.com: “Before you head out for the lanterns and pitchforks, it’s worth remembering that a free press is not free,” Carr writes. “One of the offshoots of free speech is that it will be used to pernicious ends.”

Carr also interviewed Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, who head up Village Voice Media (Backpage.com’s corporate parent), and who are not sounding like they intend to back down:

“I am beginning to like our odds,” [Lacey] said. “We have all these practicing politicians and concerned clergy after us. We must be doing something right.”

In a phone call, he and Mr. Larkin pointed out that Web sites like Backpage.com are not legally responsible for posted content and added that the company had spent millions on both human and technological efforts to screen ads that feature minors. They said they had worked with law enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in an effort to make sure Backpage.com’s “adult” section included only adults.

Both men see the debate as a free speech issue.

“We have always had a very libertarian approach to advertising,” said Mr. Larkin, adding that classifieds represented 30 to 35 percent of their business. “We don’t ban cigarettes, we take adult advertising. We take ads that sell guns.”

The targeting of Backpage.com follows 2010′s moral panic regarding adult services on Craigslist, which folded like a cheap lawn chair and killed the adult section of their site.

Hey, guess what happened after that? In the last year, Backpage.com saw a 50 percent increase in revenue from escort ads, according to this report. Kill Backpage.com, and this time next year the AGs will be feverishly rubbing their hands together as they prepare to target whatever site springs up to take its place. (More on this issue from the always reliably awesome Reason.com Hit ‘n’ Run blog.)

You can strike a blow against censorship by visiting the Backpage.com adult services pages today, you shameless pervert. I’d join you, but I’m already late for Bible study.

Fighting Over Online Sex Ads (New York Times)