Backpage.com sues Cook County sheriff over crusade against adult classifieds

Backpage.com sues Cook County sheriff over crusade against adult classifieds 1

Backpage.com, an online classifieds company that offers “adult” advertisements, has asked a federal judge to force an Illinois law official to recall his letters pressuring credit card companies to withdraw their services from their website.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart has engaged in an “informal extralegal” effort to get Backpage.com to shut down its portions of its website for “adult-oriented ads posted by users,” Chicago lawyer Christopher F. Allen and colleagues said in a complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

Even though Sheriff Dart has been “stymied” by the Constitution, federal law, and court decisions saying such ads are protected speech, he is crusading against Backpage.com just as he did with Craigslist.org, which “succumbed” to his public-pressure tactics in 2010, Mr. Allen wrote.

Recently, Visa and MasterCard terminated their services to Backpage.com, cutting off “nearly all revenue” to the website, the complaint said.

It asked the court to “enjoin, declare unlawful and recover damages” for the actions of Sheriff Dart, and “return the parties to the status quo.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported about the complaint, which names only Sheriff Dart as a defendant.

A spokesman for Sheriff Dart called it “regrettable” that Backpage.com would dedicate resources to lawyers and lobbyists when they could be partnering with efforts to combat sex trafficking.

Earlier in July, Sheriff Dart announced that after he wrote to Visa Chief Executive Charles Scharf and MasterCard Chief Executive Ajaypal Banga to brief them on the role their companies played within the sex-trafficking industry, they agreed to “disassociate” their companies from Backpage.com.

The website’s adult ads “make up the foundation of a booming modern sex trafficking industry,” Sheriff Dart said July 1. “It is a violent business that preys on the young and vulnerable, yet one that hides that reality behind a sense of normalcy created by sites like Backpage.com.”

On July 9, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wrote to Backpage.com Chief Executive Carl Ferrer to ask him to remove the adult services from the website.

Backpage.com has become “the leading online site for prostitution and trafficking advertising, garnering over 80 percent of online prostitution advertising revenue,” said the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE).

“Rather than re-evaluating the practices that make major credit card companies uncomfortable doing business with them, Backpage continues to prioritize their own profits over the safety of the men, women and sometimes children, whose sale they facilitate online,” said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the NCSE, which has named Backpage.com as one of its “Dirty Dozen” companies that profit from sexual exploitation.

American Express stopped processing payments for adult categories on Backpage.com earlier this year; the credit card giant has forbidden use of its cards for “adult digital content sold via Internet Electronic Delivery” for years.

Dallas-based Backpage.com was once owned by Village Voice Media. The website was sold for an undisclosed amount to an unidentified Dutch company, the Dallas Business Journal reported in December.

Backpage.com said it still accepts Bitcoin for purchases. Until July 6, it said, people could use major credit cards to pay between $5 and $17 to post ads in its adult category and $1 for dating ads. Many ads in other categories are free.

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