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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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 11:39am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      btr1701 (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 1:45pm

      Re:

      > and possibly result in a lawsuit from the Government
      > itself against the payment processors.

      A lawsuit based on what? Credit card companies are free to do business (or refuse to do business) with whomever they please. There's no "constitutional right to credit card transactions" in the USA.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2015 @ 3:53am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 4:26am

        Re: Re:

        Sure but not based on law enforcement requests.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          btr1701 (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 8:12am

          Re: Re: Re:

          > Sure but not based on law enforcement requests.

          Cite me the case law, statute, regulation, or code that prohibits a business from declining to do business with someone based on a law enforcement request.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Guy, 2 Jul 2015 @ 7:33pm

        Re: Re:

        Actually, the Supreme Court has just ruled that there is a constitutional right to credit card transactions. It's in the same section as the right to abort a viable child and the right to marry.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DaveK (profile), 3 Jul 2015 @ 3:34pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 12:43pm

    Ensuring job security

    He doesn't want to fix the problem, he just wants to make a lot of noise brushing it under the rug.

    Fixing a problem takes work, and once it's done you need to move on to the next problem, while making a lot of noise takes minimal work, and ensures that you never need to go on to the next issue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Jul 2015 @ 12:57pm

    This has precedent

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 1:05pm

    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??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 2:55pm

      Re: I will say this again

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

      Because they don't have any money.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JBDragon (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 1:21pm

    Isn't Chicago broke? How it has money to do this. I'm still wondering why or why anyone would have in and just do whatever a sheriff wanted them to do?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      btr1701 (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 1:46pm

      Re:

      > Isn't Chicago broke? How it has money to do this.

      Pay attention to the article. This is the sheriff of Cook County, not Chicago.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 10:14pm

      Re:

      I'm still wondering why or why anyone would have in and just do whatever a sheriff wanted them to do?

      Because the sheriff would loudly and publicly accuse them of supporting prostitution if they didn't, and they're afraid of that publicity.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        JoeCool (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 12:14am

        Re: Re:

        Which is odd because that kind of publicity would probably double or triple their business. :)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 7:20am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Which is odd because that kind of publicity would probably double or triple their business.

          This is Visa, Mastercard, and AmEx. I doubt there is that much upside potential in the US. Developing markets maybe, but they wouldn't hear about this kerfuffle.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 1 Jul 2015 @ 2:41pm

    What kind of PR?

    Might the better question be 'Why are big public companies making such public moralistic displays'?

    Just what message are they trying to send, and to whom?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Spaceman Spiff (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 3:34pm

    So, what does work

    Let's see:

    1. Outlaw all debit cards.
    2. Outlaw all credit cards.
    3. Outlaw the use of cash.

    Yeah, as though that would work to stop the oldest profession! Mr. Dart, you protest too much! It makes me think you must be involved in shady dealings yourself!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Jul 2015 @ 5:46pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dem pimps, 1 Jul 2015 @ 6:47pm

    seems like a good idea

    anything you actually want to buy from CL or BP, you go and pay cash, you dont pay via credit card because its used stuff people are CLAIMING TO possess.

    it wont hurt any avg person to prevent you from paying via a card to a used posting site, except pimps. fine with me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sifiso Nkwanyana, 1 Jul 2015 @ 10:50pm

    Feeling bad about the State

    I sometime really feel bad about what the state, I am really not sure it is broke or what.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Chris in Utah (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 10:47pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DaveK (profile), 3 Jul 2015 @ 3:51pm

    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?)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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