WASHINGTON—Federal law enforcement agencies have seized Backpage.com, a controversial classified-ads website known for its numerous sex-related postings.
“Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized,” said a large notice plastered on the site. The action was led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and Internal Revenue Service and included participation from state authorities.
Backpage, already the subject of multiple criminal probes, has become a lightning rod for critics of websites accused of turning a blind eye to sex trafficking. It has galvanized lawmakers to pass a law limiting the immunity of websites for the actions of their users.
was arrested in 2016 in Texas and charged in California with offenses including multiple counts of pimping of minors. Mr. Ferrer and other executives at the company have not been convicted of criminal wrongdoing in the case.
The case, initially pursued by California’s former attorney general,
who is now a U.S. senator, suffered a setback when Sacramento County Superior Court Judge
dismissed the charges against Mr. Ferrer and two other Backpage executives.
“Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit,” said the judge, citing a law passed in the early days of the internet that granted immunity to websites from any charges related to criminal activity they may facilitate. California later filed another lawsuit on criminal money-laundering charges, and that case continues.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined Friday to directly address the seizure. Lawyers for Backpage did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“This is an ongoing investigation and in order not to compromise it and future prosecution efforts, I have no information to provide at this time,“ said the spokeswoman,
Nicole Navas Oxman.
Backpage has positioned itself as a champion of free speech. In a federal appeals decision in 2015, the company won a lawsuit against a sheriff’s office in Illinois that had pushed credit card companies to drop the website.
Members of Congress, including Sens. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Rob Portman (R., Ohio), have investigated the alleged role of Backpage in the sex-trafficking system.
“This is great news for survivors, advocates, and law enforcement,” said Ms. McCaskill on Friday, adding the action was “further proof” that the legislation could help combat sex crimes. “State and local law enforcement need this bill to enable them to take swift action against websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children online, and to stop the next Backpage long before another website can claim so many innocent victims.”
A bipartisan law passed last month, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Mr. Portman, would amend the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to roll back immunity that Congress had conferred on websites for the actions of their users.
Its passage marked a rare political defeat for big technology firms, which have become a powerful lobbying force in Washington in recent years.
Since then, a number of websites have taken down forums allegedly involved in sex solicitation, including Craigslist and Reddit. Others, such as NightShift and CityVibe, have shut down.
Large companies like
Google long resisted any change to the immunity law, fearing it could lead to a greater erosion of their congressionally granted legal protections. Tech advocacy groups have supported Backpage in some of its legal battles.
But a series of political misfortunes, including Russian use of online platforms to meddle in the 2016 election, have diminished the tech industry’s standing in Washington, making it easier for lawmakers to pass the legislation effectively targeting adult-services sites.
Backpage’s seizure on Friday did not appear directly linked to the legislation, but instead resulted from a long-running investigation by federal and state authorities.
Write to Lalita Clozel at lalita.clozel.@wsj.com