Attorney General Ken Paxton announces Carl Ferrer’s arrest. Photo: Texas Attorney General’s Office
By Dhakir Warren
California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have taken a courageous stand against commercial sexual exploitation by arresting Carl Ferrer, chief executive of Backpage.com.
Ferrer’s website, one of the largest facilitators of online prostitution, makes millions of dollars a year charging users to post ads selling people for sex. The investigation, led by the California Department of Justice, confirms that Backpage.com is far worse than some online “escort” service.
After a three-year probe, the California agency reported that many of Backpage.com’s prostitution ads involve victims of sex trafficking, including children under the age of 18. California’s probe was sparked in part by reports from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children of an 800 percent increase in suspected child sex trafficking over five years, much of it caused by online sex trafficking. The center documented 2,900 cases where suspected child sex trafficking occurred via Backpage.com.
Considering that 99 percent of the company’s worldwide income is directly attributable to its “adult” section, the evidence makes clear Ferrer profited from trafficking. Backpage.com’s records, cited in the probe, show its gross income from California was $2.5 million per month between 2013 and 2015, with over $51 million in revenue over a two-year period.
But those lucrative days may be over if the case leads to convictions.
Ferrer is facing felony charges of pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. Paxton, the Texas AG, announced that Ferrer was arrested in Houston on a California issued warrant after he arrived on a flight from Amsterdam, where his company is now based. Two other men, controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, have also been criminally charged with conspiracy to commit pimping, a felony.
This is not the first time Ferrer and his online sex-buying empire have come under fire from the law. Earlier this year, he ignored a subpoena issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which was examining sex trafficking on the Internet. The standoff earned him the first civil contempt resolution issued by the Senate in more than 20 years.
Backpage.com is still operating, but its future is in serious doubt—joyous news for anyone who opposes sexual exploitation and the profiteering from human suffering.
Backpage.com is a Goliath in the world of online sex-buying, but it isn’t the only game in town. In the coming weeks other sites offering similar services will come out of the digital woodwork looking to fill any void.
Craigslist shut down its “adult personal” section in 2010, after law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups pointed out the many ways the site enabled prostitution and trafficking. It was hailed as win, but within weeks, sites like MyRedbook.com had absorbed a substantial amount of their traffic. Four years later MyRedbook.com was shut down and many displaced users migrated to Backpage.com. The underlying problem is there’s simply too much money, too much demand, for the market to ignore it.
The only surefire way to end the online sex trade, including sex trafficking, is to increase the legal and social pressure on sex buyers. Without the buyers’ money, pimps and traffickers have no reason to lure vulnerable people into prostitution. Without the buyers’ dollars, exploitation entrepreneurs like Ferrer would lose their incentive. It always comes down to the buyers. Stop them and you stop the entire predatory industry in its tracks.
As sex-buying moves deeper and deeper online, and the Internet has become the brothel of the 21st century, and those invested in combating its growth need to become more tech savvy to keep pace. It’s why Demand Abolition works closely with leading technology companies and independent computer scientists to develop new ways to disrupt sex buyers online. With our partners in law enforcement and the tech industry, we are piloting innovative technologies and tools for tracking, educating, and collecting important data on Internet sex buyers. The more we know about these men and how they operate online, the better our tactics to dissuade them will become.
Our heartfelt thanks go out to Attorney Generals Harris, Paxton, and everyone who worked so hard building the case against Ferrer and his crew. It truly is a time to celebrate. But there’s also much work to be done.
The fall of Ferrer has captured the world’s attention. Let’s capitalize on this momentum and come up with new ideas for dissuading men from trying to buy sex, and holding them legally accountable when they do. No buyers means no business—no more harm. Together we can demand an end to sex-buying and make all of our communities safer.
Dhakir Warren is the senior manager of social innovation for Demand Abolition.