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June 2015, an ad appeared on in Texas with a series of alluring photos of a naked woman, who described herself to potential dates as “fun, young, exotic,” and “ready to be your fantasy girl.” By the end of the month, the woman had been murdered by a customer who responded to the ad. He set her corpse on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. When the victim’s father contacted to try and get the pictures of his dead daughter removed from the site, the company didn’t immediately comply.

At the time, Backpage was the largest online publisher of sex ads in the world with city-specific sites spanning 97 countries. In the 11 years since it had been launched, it had earned some $500 million for its owners. But it was also the scourge of law enforcement officials across the country whose investigative files teemed with hundreds of examples of cases that had connections to ads on the site: a young girl forced to perform sex acts at gun point, choked to the point of seizures and gang-raped; a woman whose pimp fed her drugs, stole her identification documents and sexually assaulted her with a firearm; yet another woman who tried to escape her pimp by jumping out of a vehicle on the highway and was run over and killed. Attorneys general in multiple states had tried to shut down the site and prosecute its owners and all had failed.