A group of adult classified advertising sites adult marketplace Backpage.com has been shut down by federal authorities.
CityXGuide, created by Wilhan Martono, who has operated ‘successor’ sites to Backpage, with which Martono had no involvement, since it was shut down in 2018.
It is thought to be the first time that Federal authorities have exercised the laws created by the much-derided FOSTA/SESTA acts, which many sex workers have cited as being counterproductive to their protection.
Mr Martono, 46, was arrested in Fredmont, California before extradition to Dallas, Texas, where he will face 28 charges including money laundering, racketeering, promotion and facilitation of prostitution and trafficking.
The sites, which Mr Martono bought before the fall of Backpage, have been identified as advertising prostitution services, but more seriously, allegedly openly offering children, known to be victims of human trafficking.
Other site names include BodyRubShop, along with various derivations and tweaks to the original ‘backpage.com’.
Court documents cite Martono’s desire to create a ‘New Backpage’, almost immediately after the original was taken down, even buying ‘newbackpage.com’, as well as ‘ramping up’ the other URLs he’d bought in 2014.
It’s estimated that Martono made $21m from the suite of sites. Each was set up to evade US laws. Contact details for the site were in Hong Kong, and payment made by Bitcoin or Gift Card.
However, it was a series of wire transfers involving gift cards that finally scuppered the operation, after they were traced by federal authorities.
The US Department of Justice is currently preparing to seize the contents of 12 bank accounts and a significant but undisclosed amount of silver bullion allegedly bought with proceeds.
The debate over FOSTA/SESTA rages on. While lawmakers argue that shutting down sites offering sex services prevents trafficking, sex workers argue that they offer far safer ways to interact with clients than regular soliciting.
Many campaigners against the laws believe that they are a backwards way of suppressing free speech rights, normally protected under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US, and that it sets a dangerous precedent for future targets.