Senate Finds Backpage.com Facilitated Online Sex Trafficking

On Monday, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, published a stunning new report detailing the Subcommittee’s findings from its 18 month-long investigation into the scourge of online sex trafficking. Tuesday, the Senators will hold a public hearing titled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.”

For the last two years, Portman and McCaskill have led an investigation into online sex trafficking facilitated by Backpage, resulting in a unanimous Senate vote to enforce the Subcommittee’s subpoena and a federal court order compelling Backpage to turn over responsive documents. The Subcommittee began its bipartisan investigation of human trafficking on the Internet in April 2015. With estimated annual revenues of more than $150 million, Backpage is a market leader in commercial sex advertising and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children.

The report’s three principal findings include:

· Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its “adult” ads.

· Backpage knows that it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking.

· Despite the reported sale of Backpage to an undisclosed foreign company in 2014, the true beneficial owners of the company are James Larkin, Michael Lacey, and Carl Ferrer.

Kathleen Winn, Executive Director of AZMEN and advisory board member for Shared Hope International stated, “Free speech does not give anyone the right to promote, advertise, and market children for sex slavery. The facilitation of sex trafficking is a criminal enterprise. To somehow believe freedom of speech allows for the criminal actions and heinous crimes against children to be committed is barbaric.”

Scheduled to testify at the hearing are Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, General Counsel Elizabeth McDougall, Chief Operations Officer Andrew Padilla, and company co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, as well as several victims of Backpage’s practices.

The report reads in part:

Backpage does not deny that its site is used for criminal activity, including the sale of children for sex. Instead the company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Backpage executives have also repeatedly touted their process for screening adult advertisements as an industry-leading effort to protect against criminal abuse. Since June 2015, the Subcommittee has sought information from Backpage—first through a voluntary request, then by subpoena—about those screening measures. Backpage refused to comply, and the Subcommittee was forced to initiate the first civil contempt action authorized by the Senate in more than twenty years. In August 2016, the Subcommittee prevailed and secured a federal court order compelling Backpage to produce the subpoenaed documents.

The internal company documents obtained by the Subcommittee conclusively show that Backpage’s public defense is a fiction. Backpage has maintained a practice of altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality, including child sex trafficking. Backpage has avoided revealing this information. On July 28, 2011, for example, Backpage co-founder
James Larkin cautioned Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer against publicizing Backpage’s moderation practices, explaining that “[w]e need to stay away from the very idea of ‘editing’ the posts, as you know.” Backpage had good reason to conceal its editing practices: Those practices served to sanitize the content of innumerable advertisements for illegal transactions—even as Backpage represented to the public and the courts that it merely hosted content others had created.

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