IN APRIL 2018, federal agents raided the Arizona homes of Michael Lacey and James Larkin, the longtime publishers of an alt-weekly empire and founders of the classified-ads site Backpage.com.
"There were 20 to 25 agents on the property in flak jackets, all with guns," says Lacey, whose wife's family had been visiting at the time; an armed agent had pulled her nearly 80-year-old mom naked from the shower. After more than a week in jail, Lacey and Larkin were released on $1 million bond apiece but confined to Maricopa County and forced to wear ankle monitors. The Backpage homepage now declares the site seized by the FBI and other federal agencies.
The pair had been under escalating legal and political pressure for years, with an array of high-profile politicians and law enforcement figures accusing Backpage of abetting sexual exploitation. The site's "Adult" section housed ads for escorts, dominatrixes, strippers, webcammers, and other legal categories of adult entertainment--but media coverage of the bust framed it as a victory against "human trafficking."
The actual charges included in the federal indictment against Lacey, Larkin, and several former colleagues say otherwise. They stand accused of violating the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution, of money laundering, and of conspiracy.
The two men's publishing careers began with the launch of the Phoenix New Times in 1970. By the time they sold the publication in 2012, its parent company owned 17 weekly papers, including New York City's iconic Village Voice, plus outlets in Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, and St. Louis. The papers had relied heavily on classified ads for revenue, but as the internet gained ground, print "classifieds just got wiped out," says Larkin. So in 2004, they launched Backpage.com to fill the gap.
Over time, the site became popular and profitable--but its success made it a target in a tangle of political crusades, subject to a variety of boycotts, investigations, and lawsuits. At first, Lacey and Larkin were unfazed. "We've had personals from day one," says Larkin. "We've had adult advertising from 1970."
In addition, the pair had good reason to believe that both the First Amendment and a federal statute were on their side. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, digital platforms don't count as the speakers of things their users or commenters post. This means they can't be convicted on state charges or sued in civil court for...