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How Washington’s effort led to Friday’s seizure of Backpage.com

(File, Associated Press)

Federal authorities have seized Backpage.com, the website with a reputation for human trafficking and prostitution. It is the culmination of an effort to take down the website that began at the Washington State Attorney General’s office more than a decade ago.

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“I could not be happier,” former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said. “My hat is off to the folks at the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, and others who took the step today of shutting down Backpage. I was delighted when I clicked on Backpage.com and I saw a big notice from the FBI that they seized the website. It is a great, great day.”

Backpage is an online classified service, similar to Craigslist. It has been investigated for years due to the high frequency of sex trafficking alleged to be peddled via its adult section. Starting on April 6, visitors to Backpage.com were informed that the website and its affiliated pages were seized “as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, with analytical assistance from the Joint Regional Intelligence Center.”

The notice on the website states that other agencies are assisting, including: the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the district of Arizona, U.S. Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section; U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California; California Attorney General; and the Texas Attorney General.

Battle against Backpage.com

McKenna investigated Backpage, starting in 2007 when he was attorney general. It was part of an investigation in to domestic violence. He was shocked to see how much human trafficking occurred in Washington and around the country through the website.

“It started with leadership in the Washington Attorney General’s office,” McKenna said, noting that his office brought together AGs from across the country. The cross-state partnership has worked against Backpage ever since.

McKenna worked with the Legislature to hold Backpage accountable for the crimes committed through its website. A law was passed, but Backpage sued the state over the law — and won.

“Because there is a federal law that has been shielding Backpage and some other sites from liability,” he said. “…just three weeks ago, Congress adopted major sex trafficking legislation to close that loophole … between what happened in Congress last month and what we saw today from federal law enforcement, I think we are at a turning point now for victims of human trafficking who are bought and sold online.”

McKenna says that he has met victims of sex trafficking, including girls and boys from Washington state.

“This is a great day for victims of human trafficking past and present,” McKenna said. “And for law enforcement, and for all the folks in the Washington Attorney General’s office who worked with me for so many years to fight Backpage.com and help human trafficking victims. And for attorneys general around the country who took on the crusade against human trafficking when I introduced them to the issue in 2010.”

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