Backpage.com CEO arrested over sex trafficking allegations


SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Carl Ferrer, chief executive of advertising website Backpage.com, was arrested on Thursday on criminal charges including pimping, as authorities investigate the company which has been accused of facilitating sex trafficking of minors.

The attorneys general of Texas and California said in a statement that Ferrer had been taken into custody in Houston on a California warrant.

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An image of the current home page of the website backpage.com shows logos of U.S. law enforcement agencies after they seized the sex marketplace site April 6, 2018. backpage.com via REUTERS
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, left, former owner James Larkin, former owner Michael Lacey and COO Andrew Padilla, in Sacramento Superior Court on October 12, 2016. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Carl Ferrer is pictured in this photo from his driver's license. Ferrer, the chief executive of advertising website Backpage.com, was arrested on Thursday on criminal charges including pimping, as authorities investigate the company which has been accused of facilitating sex trafficking of minors. Texas Attorney General?s Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, center, and controlling shareholders James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey, right, listen to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown during a hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, in Sacramento Superior Court. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, left, former owner James Larkin, former owner Michael Lacey and COO Andrew Padilla, in Sacramento Superior Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Greg Reese, president of Clear Image Investigations, exits the hotel room of a girl he had contacted through backpage.com. A group of about a dozen people meet every other Friday night to try to reach out to and rescue women engaged in prostitution. While inside, Reese made a 5 minute pitch to the girl to see if she is interested in leaving the business. Before he left she let him pray with her. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Norma Manzo and Greg Reese work to set up a 'date' with a prostitute using the internet and a throwaway cell phone. A group of about a dozen people meet every other Friday night to try to reach out to and rescue women engaged in prostitution. They scour listings for escorts on backpage.com looking for young women. One of the members, Greg Reese, a private investigator, makes contact and arranges a 'date' - usually a local hotel. One contact is made, Reese makes a 5 minute pitch to the girl to see if she is interested in leaving the business. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Kevin Brown, left, a retired police officer turned pastor, leads a short prayer in a Santa Ana parking lot before the group sets out on a mission. A group of about a dozen people meet every other Friday night to try to reach out to and rescue women engaged in prostitution. They scour listings for escorts on backpage.com looking for young women. One of the members, Greg Reese, a private investigator, makes contact and arranges a 'date' - usually a local hotel. One contact is made, Reese makes a 5 minute pitch to the girl to see if she is interested in leaving the business. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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Backpage, the second-largest U.S. online classified ad service after Craigslist, has faced scrutiny from the U.S. Senate as well as civil lawsuits over allegations that the site facilitates sex trafficking, especially of children.

Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, said Ferrer would appear in a Texas court for an extradition hearing unless he waives it.

Attorneys for Backpage.com could not immediately be reached for comment.

Harris also announced a criminal charge on Thursday against the controlling shareholders of Backpage.com, Michael Lacey and James Larkin. Ford said warrants have been issued for Lacey and Larkin but they are not in custody.

The California AG office said it had conducted a three-year investigation, including undercover operations posting escort ads.

The Senate voted 96-0 earlier this year to hold Backpage in civil contempt after it did not comply with a subpoena to hand over documents explaining how it combats sex trafficking in ads on the adult section of its website.

One civil lawsuit against Backpage was filed in 2012 in Washington State by three young teenagers who alleged they were raped multiple times after being advertised on the site. The girls, the oldest of whom was 15, sued Backpage for claims including sexual exploitation of children, alleging its posting rules were intended to instruct pimps how to post trafficking ads that evade law enforcement.

Backpage argued its rules are meant to prevent unlawful posts and invoked the federal Communications Decency Act, asserting they are not responsible for the ads because they were third-party content. Some free speech advocates filed briefs in support of its position.

The Washington state Supreme Court disagreed, ruling last year that the lawsuit could go forward.

Earlier this year, however, a similar trafficking case involving children against Backpage in Massachusetts was dismissed by a federal appeals court, which said the free speech principles embodied in the Communications Decency Act were paramount.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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