Free speech advocates warn that the disappearance of sex ads could have chilling effects on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular sites.
Veteran podcast personality Bronx Johnny has a message for the "fucking prudes" who forced Backpage to remove its adult classified ads section: you've broken my heart.
Johnny, who co-hosts the "High Society Radio" news and current events podcast, said he was "horrified" after Motherboard informed him that Backpage had finally bowed to legal pressure to remove the section of its website where escorts and other sex workers were once able to post advertisements offering their services. The podcast co-host (who asked Motherboard not to reveal his full name) had regularly browsed these ads since October 2014, saying he "knew what he was paying for," and that what happened between "consulting adults" was nobody's business but their own.
"Backpage was straight to the point no strings attached," he told Motherboard by text message.
The shutdown follows years of mounting political and legal pressure against Backpage, which launched in 2004 and hosts a wide assortment of classified ads having nothing to do with the sex industry. That pressure reached a crescendo on Monday, after the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded that the site instructed employees to "edit the text of adult ads to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction."
Beyond adult ads, Backpage users can posts ads for things like used furniture for sale, ads looking for prospective roommates, or even ads looking for short term loans, similar to Craigslist or Facebook's Marketplace.
When reached for comment, a representative for Backpage referred Motherboard to a statement released on Monday, which blamed the adult ads shutdown on "new government tactics," including targeting the site's credit card payment processors.
"CENSORED," a message on the site's adult classifieds section now reads, in large, bright red letters. "The government has unconstitutionally censored this content."
While the average person's first-hand experience with Backpage's adult section is likely minimal, its shutdown raises critical questions about the nature of free speech online and to what degree, if any, section 230 of the Communication Decency Act should continue to shield publishers and technology companies from being held responsible for messages and other user-generated content created and posted by their users.
Backpage previously operated under the assumption its adult ads were protected under 230, but repeated litigation culminating in a Tuesday committee hearing finally appears to have caused the company to remove this user-generated content. If Backpage is held responsible for its users' posting ads soliciting money for sex, then what's to stop the likes of Facebook or Twitter or YouTube from being held to the same standard?
Section 230, according to Emma Llanso, the director of the Center for Democracy & Technology's Free Expression Project, "is what has enabled the digital economy to take off in the US. So much of what is strong about the internet in the US is not something that should be tweaked or opened up or revised lightly," she said by phone.
To Llanso and other advocates, holding Backpage responsible for the salacious ads marks a dangerous escalation in the threat posed to free speech online. "If you take this out of the Backpage context, what you're really talking about is content moderation practices that all user-generated content websites use, or have the ability to use under our current legal framework," she said. "These issues are really core to the whole framework that underpins free speech online."
"No human society has successfully eliminated prostitution, but we are setting precedents that are troubling," Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, told Motherboard by phone, adding that strongmen like Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan highlight the danger to free speech posed by repressive regimes.
"Long before there was an internet or social media, there was prostitution," he added.
As for Bronx Johnny, the podcast co-host "will now have to resort going on dates and pretending to give a fuck" following the removal of Backpage's adult ads.
"On a date you are paying to pretend and if you don't hit it off or don't spend enough or listen enough you might spend north of $80 and not get any action," he said. "Having to go over the 'wooing process' another two or three times… The fact that you can order anything and everything online yet this line of work is still frowned upon is silly to me."