Backpage.com pleaded innocent while shutting down the adult personal ads on its site, accusing the government of censoring it.
The accusation reeked of dishonesty and bad faith.
Former Backpage.com owners James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey wait on Capitol Hill in Washington today to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent subcommittee on Investigations hearing into Backpage.com knowing facilitation of online sex trafficking.
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On Monday night, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — chaired by Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) — released a 50-page report detailing the abuses of online classified giant Backpage. Compiled from more than 1.1 million pages of notes and emails, the report lays out damning evidence that Backpage officials sanitized ads seeking sexual services to knowingly hide that many of them involved underage children.
“Backpage has not denied a word of these findings,” Mr. Portman said in his opening statement Tuesday morning during a committee hearing on the topic. “Instead, several hours after the report was issued [Monday] afternoon, the company announced the closure of its adult section — claiming ‘censorship.’ But that’s not censorship. That’s validation of our findings.”
Mr. Portman and Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) have been tenacious in investigating online sex trafficking of minors. A 20-month investigation led them to Backpage, which the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children claims is linked to 73 percent of all child sex-trafficking reports to its cyber tip line.
Company officials, including CEO Carl Ferrer, claim that the company has helped in numerous investigations involving children lost to sex traffickers. And they point to several lawsuits the company has prevailed in because of protections afforded by the federal Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to sites hosting third-party content online.
But those cases were won because there was no clear evidence that Backpage knew of any illegal activity. That equation changed when the company was ordered by the Supreme Court in September to turn over notes and emails pertaining to the Senate’s investigation.
The report contains emails from Mr. Ferrer to the site’s moderators ordering them to quit rejecting so many potentially illegal ads because it was cutting into profits and angering customers. In response, by 2010, the company was using a filter that automatically stripped words indicative of prostitution, particularly for underage prostitutes. Words such as teen, Lolita, young, and fresh were stripped automatically from ads, even before moderators viewed the ads. In some cases, customers were tutored on what words not to include in ads.
“These are not the practices of an ‘ally’ in the fight against human trafficking,” Mr. Portman said. “These are the practices of a corporation intent on profiting from human trafficking — and human misery — and profit they have, at the expense of countless innocent victims.”
According to the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, there was an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015. The evidence is that Backpage has knowingly played a major role in that increase.
The government is not censoring a reputable, honest business. It is attempting to protect some of this nation’s most vulnerable citizens, and Rob Portman has been leading the way. Mr. Portman’s tenacity on this issue, and the depth of his personal knowledge and involvement, is most unusual. It is also highly laudable. His crusade is tragically necessary and entirely noble.