The long-running legal battle between Congress and the online classified ads site Backpage.com has finally come to a close after a California judge dismissed pimping charges against the site's CEO and co-founders today. The site's "adult" section of the site has long been known for facilitating sex trafficking and other illegal activity, but Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman agreed with the Backpage execs' argument that they were not responsible for third-party postings on their site.
CEO Carl Ferrer was initially hit with multiple pimping charges -- including pimping a minor -- for running what California Attorney General Kamala Harris once called "the world's top online brothel." During the case, Harris accused the Ferrer and his co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin of making millions off of sex trafficking and prostitution, while an earlier Senate investigation found evidence that Backpage staff had edited ad content to obscure illegal activity, but the defendants successfully dodged those charges by invoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online service providers from illegal activity committed by third-party users of their site or service.
That's the same piece of legislature Airbnb tried to use to argue that the company was not responsible if its users posted listings for illegal short-term rentals on its service. A San Francisco Judge eventually threw out Airbnb's lawsuit against the city, but in this case Judge Bowman in Sacramento ruled that the CDA absolved the Backpage owners of any wrongdoing, writing: "By enacting the CDA, Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech by providing for both a foreclosure from prosecution and an affirmative defense at trial for those who are deemed an internet service provider."