Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker A Prosecutor’s Story by Maggy Krell (Hardcover; 192 pg)
Maggy Krell was a California prosecutor. Every morning she kissed her boyfriend goodbye and went to work wearing a crisply ironed white shirt, a black skirt-and-jacket set, pearls, and heels. A picture of her, with her dark red lipstick, is on the cover of the book.
Krell prosecuted a range of crimes, but sex crimes sort of rubbed her the wrong way. Why should she focus on low-level prostitutes, who had barely the clothes on their back, and were often homeless and very young. The true criminals were those who ran the show.
Sex traffickers. Years passed, Krell went gained experience and seniority and discovered a key part of going after sex traffickers were their financial crimes.
A big fish here was Backpage.com, an international website that was a major conduit for the criminal sex trade, including teenage victims. She would spend years helping to try to take them down. The “takedown” was a multi-state and federal effort. This is the story of her part.
At the heart of all our work should be the survivors whom I have had the privilege to work with both in prosecuting Backpage and telling this story. They are incredible young women. It has been the honor of my life to stand with them as they speak up for justice.
This book is by and about a woman prosecutor whose career aims ultiately were to target sex trafficking. Not sex crime alone (such as prosecuting prostitutes), but going after powerful groups who exploited young sex workers. This book is about going after the “big fish” there while always keeping the interests of the victims in mind as well. They stories are also told.
Should I Read It?
Taking Down Backpage is not a comprehensive account about the efforts against the classified website. The page itself was “taken down” from the web shortly after Maggy Krell left the California prosecutor’s office. The civil and criminal legal story, however, continues in some form to this day in mid-2022. And, this under 200 page book does not provide a complete story.
This book is a very engaging insider account by a Californian prosecutor about her part in targeting Backpage. This years’ long effort, a complicated, at times convoluted process, is well told here. The reader sees the many parts involved, Krell making sure to give credit to others.
We learn about the lives of various young women caught in the web of sex trafficking. The book also ends with a focus on the victims and society’s role in protecting them. The human story, both Krell’s own life and career, and the lives of the victims, provides a novelistic flavor.
An average reader, as well as those specifically interested in the subject, should enjoy this well written account. It is a good addition to the true crime genre.
The book provides a down to earth narrative, filling in various legal details as needed. It is not an in depth analysis of the story or legal questions about prosecuting sex trafficking. But, it provides a good introduction. There are a few black and white photographs. No index.
A reader with a strong libertarian sentiment might find it too prosecution-focused, disputing various choices made. Still, I think Krell handles things fairly, and leaves open the possibility of truly consensual adults taking part in sex work. (I myself lean toward legalized sex work.)
Maggy Krell makes a few notable comments here. First, the very first sentence reminds us that the book “is seen through my lens as a former prosecutor.”
She also notes the book is about her work addressing female sex trafficking, but that male, trans, and gender non-conforming victims, including in other industries, are also exploited daily.
Krell also notes sex trafficking and exploitation is not the same thing as consensual sex work. Sex workers deserve protection, no matter what your position is on supporting legal sex work as policy. Krell disputes the argument prosecuting Backpage made sex work more dangerous.
1: The Motel
Maggy Krell opens the book with a snapshot of her as a busy young Californian prosecutor (in her 20s) in court, prosecuting low level sex workers. It seemed to her unfair and a bit pointless to target her efforts on young prostitutes, often underage. They were victims.
She suggested to her boss that they should go after the motel owner for aiding and abetting prostitution. It was a novel approach at the time, but it worked. The germ of an idea grew in her mind that prosecutors should go after the true criminals, providing support for the victims.
2: Operation Wilted Flower
In 2005, Krell became a deputy attorney general in the criminal law division. She talks about an important older male mentor. In 2006, a law was passed providing civil and criminal remedies to address human trafficking. Krell decided that she wanted sex trafficking to be her specialty.
She was first assigned to the mortgage fraud beat, which was not Krell’s preference. But, it gave her years of experience and important tools that could also be used to fight human trafficking. This included targeting fake “massage parlors,” which were really part of an Asian human trafficking ring. Customers were obtained by word of mouth and websites like Backpage.
3: American Sex Trafficking
This chapter discusses how sex traffickers uses various methods, including psychological and physical coercion, to obtain control of their victims. A “power and control” wheel is provided that summarizes the techniques. Specific victims that Krell helped are discussed as is a prosecution she successfully carried out against a specific sexual trafficker.
Backpage.com was a major aider and abetter of the commercial sex trade. Backpage operated in eight hundred cities worldwide. It posted non-sexual content, but that was not where the money was. Backpage focused its efforts on the selling of sex.
Backpage was run by James Larkin and Mike Lacey, previously heads of a media empire.
Many of the ads on their website promoted underage children prostitutes. Backpage provided minimal assistance to help authorities when such ads were flagged, but in various ways showed a half-hearted concern about the problem. And, the site also helped criminal prostitution overall.
But, going after them was a complex undertaking. Krell speaks about the support of the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children. And, the specific things necessary to obtain a warrant to examine the emails necessary to obtain the “smoking gun” for criminal charges.
5: The Business
The background of the owners of Backpage, two rebellious types, who eventually found the online sex trade a very lucrative business. They had a media background and wrapped themselves around the First Amendment, including with Backpage.
Carl Ferrer, a younger tech expert, helped them make Backpage successful. Ferrer, on paper at least, eventually owned the company. But, Larkin and Lacey still were deeply involved.
An investigation of Backpage showed evidence it was used from criminal sexual sales and that Ferrer played a “hands on” role. Backpage was not merely a type of “bulletin board” for ads; the owners and Ferrer played a hands-on role.
A key opening was realizing the website Google held Backpage’s email servers. Google was incorporated in California, allowing the state to obtain a warrant. It led to a lot of evidence.
6: Running Out of Time
The Backpage investigation was ongoing for over three years. Shortly after her mentor died, Krell finally met up with the state attorney general’s executive team (November 2015).
They had various concerns with the case, including thinking perhaps the federal government should lead the effort instead. Krell also met with the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office.
Meanwhile, Krell continued to build a case against Backpage, including evidence of methods they used to avoid being caught promoting sex trafficking (including of minors). It was all a very complicated conspiracy and the book provides various details and info about who were harmed.
7: Flight 21
In 2016, California Attorney General Kamala Harris called Maggy Krell and finally gave her the “go for it!” that she had been waiting a long time to obtain.
The Backpage arrest operation was a multi-state affair. Lacey and Larkin had residences in Arizona. They eventually turned themselves in voluntarily in California.
Ferrer was in Texas as were Backpage offices. Ferrer was arrested in Texas and then efforts had to be made to extradite him to California. The Backpage offices were searched.
8: Round 1
Backpage had a major team of lawyers with the First Amendment being a large part of the defense. A basic argument was based on the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA).
Section 230 says that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Krell argued Backpage was guilty of criminal conduct and was not immune.
But, the judge dismissed the charges. Loss in round one.
Krell decided to focus her efforts on financial wrongdoing, particularly money laundering, which was filed shortly before Christmas 2016. Charges for involvement in pimping, that is, criminal sexual services for money, were included as well. But, the financial charges were stronger.
Attorney General Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate, but the new California attorney general was on board. Krell also continued to work with the federal government.
Krell talks about some of the nitty-gritty about the criminal case, going into the details involved in prosecuting it in court. Victim groups were very supportive of her efforts and Krell continued to work with them. Keeping a focus on the victims is an important message of the book.
In the end, Krell had a mixed victory in round two: the financial prosecutions were not dismissed, but she lost on the pimping charges.
10: The Breakdown
Krell decided the best path was to accept defeat on the pimping charges, in part because appealing the defeat would take too much time, the rest of the case on hold in the meanwhile.
Carl Ferrer, now legally the CEO of Backpage, was the easiest target. There was a large paper trail that provided a lot of evidence of guilt. He separated his legal defense from the others.
Meanwhile, a federal law was passed that provided an exception to the CDA when sex trafficking is involved. And, Maggy Krell was offered a job as a chief legal counsel for the California branch of Planned Parenthood. She accepted.
Ultimately, Ferrer negotiated a plea bargain, and consented to help federal and state investigate Backpage. In a joint operation, California, Texas, and the federal government seized control of Backpage and it was taken down. If you go there now, this is what you see:
Backpage.com remains shut down though Larkin and Lacey continue to fight their charges.
Afterword: Human Trafficking in the Post-Backpage Era
At least in the short term, shutting down Backpage helped the fight against sex trafficking, including (according to one national study) decreasing sex trafficking by twenty five percent.
There still is much to be done. There are various ways to address the criminal side of things. Internet providers, social media companies, and financial institutions (including banks and credit card companies) also must show responsibility.
But, it is also important to address the root causes, including the poverty and lack of alternatives that drive many to go into sex work and put themselves at risk of being exploited.
Child victims have their own special needs and vulnerabilities. We should try to address the many needs of victims, who often get caught into the criminal justice system themselves. Part of the solution needs to be to respect their needs and humanity, including by the labels we use.
The voice of the survivors of abuse must not be forgotten in this fight.
Points to Ponder
Maggy Krell strongly speaks for survivors of sex trafficking, but in her author note says she is not stating an opposition of consensual sex work. How did her efforts help or hurt those who argue they are willingly part of sex work? Is consensual sex work truly possible?
Mary Anne Franks argues that it is necessary to regulate the Internet to prevent harms such as those Krell sought to address. Others argue places like Backpage should be protected speech, putting aside possible financial crimes its operators might have committed. What do you think?
Maggy Krell was a California prosecutor for 15 years, serving as Supervising Deputy Attorney General in California and also served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney.
After she left state service, Ms. Krell served as Chief Legal Counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. She also was part of the legal effort against the Trump Administration’s family separation policy.
Krell currently runs her own practice providing legal support and impact strategy for survivors and non-profit organizations. This is her first book.
Is Taking Down Backpage a Reliable Source?
Maggy Krell provides an insider perspective as a California prosecutor.
The core of the book is about her office’s efforts to “takedown” the website Backpage.com, especially by prosecuting the top men involved in running it. This was a joint effort, including involving the federal government. Krell focuses on one piece of the story.
Krell provides an important insider perspective, but as with all such first-person accounts, we should be aware there are some personal biases and myopic focus that a neutral third party might not have. Keeping this in mind, she is a reliable source regarding the events and law.
For instance, E.J. Graff, who reports on human trafficking, provided a positive review in the Washington Post. The supportive blurbs on the book’s back page (ha) are largely on the anti-trafficking side. A biography of her former boss, then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, also provides one. One person whose judgment I respect, a law professor and media commentator, Melissa Murray, also recently provided a strongly positive review (“riveting”) online.
A critical Reason piece, speaking from a libertarian perspective, disputes certain parts of the case, but the strongest argument seems to be that her “victory lap” is somewhat overblown and some policy disputes. Krell’s basic reliability on details holds overall.
My conclusion would be that overall the book is reliable, especially regarding the details of her years in the prosecution’s office. The strength of her case might be disputed, especially since the book does not provide in-depth sourcing (only a few pages of notes) and case notes.
A person who wants a comprehensive account might wish to look elsewhere.