Classified advertising website Backpage has been seized by U.S. law enforcement, ending a years-long campaign to take down the popular website, which was often used to facilitate prostitution.
A notice which was uploaded to the website on Friday afternoon said Backpage and affiliated websites were seized by the FBI and other federal agencies. Other details were not released because the case remains sealed.
Law enforcement agents were also at the Sedona, Arizona, home of Michael Lacey, who is one of the founders of the website. It was not immediately clear what the agents were looking for or whether Lacey had been arrested.
The move to seize Backpage comes just weeks after U.S. lawmakers approved a controversial law that makes it easier to punish websites which are deemed to facilitate prostitution, even when the owners don’t know that their websites are being used for that purpose.
The law faced fierce opposition from free speech activists, tech companies, and advocates for sex workers, but the legislation passed the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support.
The law followed years of attempts to shut down Backpage, where messages were posted to promote sexual services. Law enforcement have long accused Backpage of facilitating the abuse of women and children, and a number of Backpage users have been arrested over the years.
Earlier on Friday, a Michigan woman was sentenced to 19 years in prison after she and her husband caused a 16-year-old to engage in prostitution through ads on Backpage. And a New Jersey couple was sentenced for using the website to force a 17-year-old girl to work as a prostitute.
At one point, the website was even used by a serial killer who used Backpage to meet his victims. James Brown, a man from Michigan, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing four women in 2011.
The owners of Backpage have long defended their website, but its “adult” section was abruptly closed in January 2017. A statement at the time said it was an “accumulation of acts of government censorship using extra-legal tactics.”
Backpage ranked as one of the most visited websites on the internet, although its popularity has fallen over the past year, according to Alexa.com, which currently ranks it as the 505th most popular website in the United States.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children welcomed Friday’s news, calling it another step in the fight against child exploitation. “We stand by the victims and their families as they process this news and continue to fight for justice against those who profited from their abuse,” the center said.