“The Department of Justice claimed this was about “keeping women and children across America safe” from sex trafficking. But behind that bravado, the government’s actual case was clearly something less noble. A performance of protection. A publicity stunt. A massive scapegoating set against the backdrop of a moral panic. And a politicized prosecution against people who engaged in and defended the most dangerous thing to any government: free speech.
Ultimately, the Backpage prosecution was a small-scale tragedy that upended individual lives as well as something much bigger. Its effects were wide-reaching and devastating for many sex workers. And yet—it wasn’t ultimately about sexual commerce or sexual crimes, not at its core. This was a warning shot fired at entities that enable all sorts of digital communication and a test bed for further legal attacks on tech companies that won’t suppress speech as politicians see fit.
That Lacey was convicted of “international concealment money laundering” is bizarre, since the money transfer was not concealed: His lawyer informed the IRS about it, as required by law. And it was not made for nefarious purposes, according to Scottsdale lawyer John Becker’s trial testimony. Lacey had needed some place to park his savings after U.S. banks, scared by a years-long propaganda crusade against Backpage, had decided doing business with the company or its associates was a reputational risk. So Becker and another lawyer advised Lacey to deposit the money—$17 million, on which taxes had been paid—with a foreign bank.
It’s hard to see how Lacey conducted a financial transaction “to conceal or disguise the nature, the location, the source, the ownership, or the control of the proceeds of specified unlawful activity,” even if you accept the government’s premise that this money was derived from unlawful activity. And, to be clear, I don’t accept that premise, since Backpage’s business should have been protected by the First Amendment (not to mention Section 230 of federal communications law).
But Backpage made money from adult ads, and the government alleges that some of those ads were illegal enticements to prostitution. Therefore, the case alleged, anything done with money made from Backpage was de facto illegal. That’s how Lacey—and former Backpage executives Jed Brunst and Scott Spear—wound up facing money laundering charges for merely moving money around.”