from the tragic-end dept
Some unfortunate news. AZ Central reported yesterday that James Larkin, who was a free speech pioneer who built an alt-weekly newspaper empire, and then spun out the controversial classifieds ads site Backpage, died by suicide, one week before his latest trial.
While there’s been plenty of discussion about Backpage, related to questions around Section 230, sex trafficking, and a variety of other things, much of the public perception about it is completely misleading. The actual details suggest that the media, prosecutors, and some politicians basically concocted an astoundingly misleading narrative about Larkin (and his partner Michael Lacey) and what they did at Backpage.
Larkin, going back to his days running the alt weekly New Times (which eventually took over the famed Village Voice) always believed in fighting strongly for his free speech rights, including getting arrested a decade and a half ago for going public about a bullshit subpoena they had received from then-sheriff Joe Arpaio.
As some actual reporting details regarding Backpage, contrary to the public story about how Backpage was actively encouraging and enabling sex trafficking, the company worked closely with law enforcement to help them track down and arrest those responsible for sex trafficking. They literally hired a former federal prosecutor who was on the board of NCMEC to help them stop anyone from using Backpage for trafficking. In an internal note by the DOJ (which the DOJ tried to hide from the trial), it was noted:
“unlike virtually every other website that is used for prostitution and sex trafficking, Backpage is remarkably responsive to law enforcement requests and often takes proactive steps to assist in investigations.”
However, where they drew the line was when law enforcement started demanding similar help in tracking down non-trafficking consensual sex work. Larkin (and Lacey) found that to go too far. From an excellent and thorough breakdown of the situation from Wired magazine (written by a former DOJ assistant US attorney):
Lacey and Larkin say they were more than willing to help crack down on child abuse. But the demands being made of them seemed increasingly unreasonable. Sex trafficking, defined as commercial sex involving coerced adults or anyone under 18, was one thing. Consensual sex work was quite another—and it wasn’t even illegal under federal law.
In March 2011, Lacey and Larkin flew to Virginia to meet with Allen. “To say that the meeting did not go well is an understatement,” Allen wrote later that day. After a full hour, he and Lacey “were still screaming at each other.” Allen demanded that Backpage do more to combat prostitution. Larkin said the site would enforce a “newspaper standard,” but Lacey added, “We are not Craigslist, and we aren’t going to succumb to pressure.” A Justice Department memo continues the story: “Allen responded that ‘At least you know what business you are in.’ ”
In short, contrary to the public narrative you may have heard, Backpage worked closely with federal law enforcement to actually stop sex trafficking (and not just take it down, but to track down the perpetrators). But they refused to do the same for consensual sex work and that is why the feds eventually came down on them like a ton of bricks, all while telling the media and politicians that it was for sex trafficking. But that was all bullshit.
And the bullshit extended to the process of the federal case against Larkin and Lacey, including when the defendants discovered an internal DOJ memo stating flat out that Backpage was helpful, rather than harmful, in the fight against sex trafficking. The DOJ successfully got the court to say that they couldn’t use that in their defense. Yes, this exonerating evidence was barred from use during the trial:
In 2012, Crisham and Swaminathan seemed impressed by how cooperative Backpage was with police and other members of law enforcement. Backpage data offer “a goldmine of information for investigators,” they noted. In general, staff would respond to subpoenas within the same day; “with respect to any child exploitation investigation, Backpage often provides records within the hour.” Staff regularly provided “live testimony at trial to authenticate the evidence against defendants who have utilized Backpage,” and the company held seminars for law enforcement on how to best work with Backpage staff and records.
“Witnesses have consistently testified that Backpage was making substantial efforts to prevent criminal conduct on its site, that it was coordinating efforts with law enforcement agencies and NCMEC [the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children], and that it was conducting its businesses in accordance with legal advice,” wrote Swaminathan and McNeil in 2013. Furthermore, they noted, their investigation failed “to uncover compelling evidence of criminal intent or a pattern or reckless conduct regarding minors.” In fact, it “revealed a strong economic incentive for Backpage to rid its site of juvenile prostitution.”
Ultimately, it was their assessment that “Backpage genuinely wanted to get child prostitution off of its site.”
Indeed, as the initial trial of Larkin and Lacey began, the judge actually had to order a mistrial, as the DOJ kept referring to child sex trafficking, even though nothing in the charges was about sex trafficking at all, let along child sex trafficking.
The new trial was set to begin next week, but for whatever reason Larkin chose to end his life rather than continue to be railroaded in this manner. I spoke with Larkin once a few years ago, and he seemed utterly perplexed by the awful situation he was in, noting that all he wanted to do was protect basic free speech principles, and couldn’t understand why he was being held up as a “sex trafficker” after everything he’d done to help law enforcement track down sex traffickers (going above and beyond basically every other site out there according to the DOJ themselves).
This is a sad and unfortunate end to his story.
I’ve always taken the stance that you can’t blame any third party for someone’s decision to take their own life, as we can never know all of the factors involved. But I do hope that some of the people who literally built up their own profiles by demonizing Backpage and Section 230 at least take a moment to reflect on whether or not they got so caught up in the narrative they wanted that they missed what was actually happening.