Chicago Area Sheriff Who Wasted Taxpayer Money Suing Craigslist, Now Strong-Arms Payment Companies To Avoid Backpage

from the that's-not-what-government-is-supposed-to-do dept

Remember Thomas Dart? He’s the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois (the county that covers Chicago and many of its suburbs). For reasons that make no sense at all, he’s somewhat obsessed with the fact that some prostitutes have figured out how to use the internet. But, rather than using this information to actually find and arrest those who are breaking the law, he’s decided a much better move is to ignore the law and attack the internet tools those prostitutes use. Back in 2009 he sued Craigslist, wasting a ton of taxpayer money, until the court inevitably threw out the case, explaining (in detail) to Dart that the law (in particular, Section 230 of the CDA) says he can’t do that. As we noted at the time, the really, really bizarre part was that in Dart’s initial announcement, he even noted how his staff used Craigslist to find and arrest those engaged in prostitution. In other words, his lawsuit appeared to be an attempt to shut down a tool that had been useful to his staff in stopping crime. Indeed, in the court ruling throwing out his bogus lawsuit, the Court pointed out the obvious:

Sheriff Dart may continue to use Craigslist’s website to identify and pursue individuals who post allegedly unlawful content… But he cannot sue Craigslist for their conduct.

Sheriff Dart may not be suing again, but it appears he has not learned his lesson yet. Of course, after being hassled by a number of law enforcement officials with no legal authority, like Dart, Craigslist eventually shut down any section of its site that might have been used for prostitution. And, just as we predicted, the prostitution just moved onward to another site, Backpage.com. And, of course, the same law enforcement officials suddenly freaked out over Backpage — even though, yet again, the law is pretty clear that Backpage is not liable.

So, now, Thomas Dart is back again, this time without a lawsuit, but using his position as a law enforcement official to strong-arm payment companies into no longer working with Backpage:

MasterCard said on Tuesday that its credit cards can no longer be used to pay for ads on the Backpage.com website, following a request from a Chicago law enforcement official who said the site is used by sex traffickers.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said that so-called “escort” ads on Backpage.com and similar sites make up the foundation of the sex trafficking industry, which preys on the young and vulnerable. He has asked both Visa Inc and MasterCard Inc to cut off any association with the Backpage.com “adult” section.

“Backpage has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for would-be traffickers,” said Dart, adding he will reveal details of a larger initiative against Backpage at a news conference on Wednesday.

The “news conference” on Wednesday was just a chance to say that Visa was in on the ban as well:

Visa Inc said on Wednesday it is joining MasterCard Inc and American Express Co in barring its credit cards from being used to pay for ads on Backpage.com following a request from a Chicago sheriff who said the site is used by sex traffickers.

Once again, Backpage has tons of legitimate uses as a classifieds service, and whatever prostitution that is done on the site should make Dart’s life easier by allowing him and his staff to find those engaged in prostitution. I’m curious, did Dart similarly recommend that streetlights be turned off at night so that street walking prostitutes can no longer walk the streets? Why not target the actual prostitutes, rather than the tool that helps you find them?

In the meantime, while this move will get stupid headlines for Dart, it won’t change much. Backpage is already accepting Bitcoin, and I can’t wait to see Dart’s office try to figure out how to pressure “Bitcoin” into no longer working with Backpage.

Ridiculously, Dart now claims this will make traffickers easier to catch. Though he doesn’t explain how:

“We have no naive notion that we’ll end prostitution, end trafficking, end exploitation of children,” Dart said. “What we’ve wanted all along is to make it more difficult and make (traffickers) easier to catch.”

So the way you make them “easier” to catch is to cut off their ability to use tools that make it ridiculously easy for you to track down, and instead push them to using tools and systems where you can’t track them down? Want to try that one again?

Either way, doesn’t it seem highly questionable for a law enforcement official to interfere in the private business agreements of two companies, neither of whom are breaking the law?

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Companies: backpage, mastercard, visa

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Comments on “Chicago Area Sheriff Who Wasted Taxpayer Money Suing Craigslist, Now Strong-Arms Payment Companies To Avoid Backpage”

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26 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Either way, doesn’t it seem highly questionable for a law enforcement official to interfere in the private business agreements of two companies, neither of whom are breaking the law?

Worse than that is the fact that the companies happily complied without a court order. This by itself would be investigated by an independent body and possibly result in a lawsuit from the Government itself against the payment processors.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Backpage could move their HQ to Denmark or Germany, where there is a legal obligation on payment processors to deal with any lawful company (only allowing blocks for actual criminal transactions or, pending cardholder confirmation, apparent fraud).

IMO that’s a good law: payment processors should be forced to act as mere conduits.

DaveK (profile) says:

Re: Re: A lawsuit based on what?

Based on tortious interference with Backpage’s business relationships, that’s what.

The government shouldn’t be allowed to go around “just suggesting” that people don’t do business with you, because every governmental “suggestion” comes with the implied threat of force (legal or otherwise) to back it up.

ECA (profile) says:

I will say this again

I REALLY think..
that someone is trying to bankrupt our cities and towns..
With all this STUPID crap..

Cops that go against the law and do STUPID THINGS..Sue the city, and the cop just quits and runs.

Sue services that are not responsible to OTHERS, like a newspaper/TV/CABLE/.. not responsible to adverts…
More money to Lawyers then to the problem..

It all ends up, just adding money OWED by the tax payers..
Is this a reason to Justify raising taxes??

Why arnt we holding people RESPONSIBLE?? is there some reason NOT to sue a mayor/police officer/Judge PERSONALLY??

Anonymous Coward says:

Don't hate the player, hate the game

Sheriffs are politicians. Politicians have one priority: get re-elected.

Nothing says ‘I’m doing my job’ to the 50+ age demographic that actually bothers to show up at the voting booth in any meaningful numbers than headlines.

Routine arrests don’t get headlines. Anything with “Internet”, “Cyber” & “Crime” gets headlines.

Journalists are not paid to get stories right. News writers are paid to get stories that grab eyeballs to television screens, clicks to webpages, and ears to radios. Truth is optional and generally to be avoided.

Where in this structure is the incentive to actually fix real problems? They are all getting too much personal and professional benefit out of things as they are.

Chris in Utah (profile) says:

Come again?

The following is a video about making prostitution illegal. Whenever you base a law in prohibition of anything the effect is driving it underground. IT WILL NOT STOP effect.

That said it also has a side effect making any such action more dangerous rather than less. Give them a place to do what there going to do anyway and problem solved.

And small spoiler: You also protect the public, no bordello has STI/Ds at all.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5fXBN80mxs

DaveK (profile) says:

At last, a valid use for the CFAA!

All Craigslist or Backpage need is a quick tweak to their terms-of-service to make clear that law enforcement may not use their site for the purpose of identifying prostitutes, and presto! Dart is committing criminal ‘unauthorised access’ and can be jailed.

(He could work around that by getting a search warrant, but he’d have to do it individually for every advertiser he wanted to investigate, and does anyone really think he’s likely to do that?)

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