Backpage.com removed its controversial “adult section” after a searing report from the Senate accused the classified website of “knowingly” facilitating underage sex trafficking.
The 53-page Senate report, published Monday by an investigative subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, contains three principal findings. First, Backpage concealed evidence of sex trafficking by “systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads. Second, executives knew about it. And third, despite the website’s sale to an undisclosed foreign company in 2014, the true beneficiaries remain the same people who founded it.
“Backpage moderators told the subcommittee that everyone at the company knew the adult-section ads were for prostitution and that their job was to ‘put lipstick on a pig’ by sanitizing them,” the report states.
Despite removing the adult section, the Texas-based website isn’t backing down quietly. All the options under the category now display “censored” in red lettering below them, and clicking on any navigates to a page with a similar message.
“The government has unconstitutionally censored this content,” the page declares. “Protect internet free speech.” The page invites users to post using the hashtag “#FREESPEECH” on social media and make a donation to “Children of the Night,” an organization dedicated to “rescuing children from prostitution.”
The subcommittee, led by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), alleged in the report that Backpage executives instructed employees or moderators as early as 2006 to “edit the text of adult ads to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction,” which, in turn, made them harder for authorities to track.
By 2010, according to the report, a feature called the “Strip Term From Ad Filter” formalized the manual scrubbing process, at the direction of CEO Carl Ferrer. The filter removed words such as “teenage,” “amber alert,” “little girl,” “lolita,” “innocent,” and “rape,” among others, from classified ads, according to the report. The report also cites a statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, asserting that Backpage is involved in 73% of reports the general public makes to the organization.
Texas authorities arrested Ferrer and two others in October 2016 and extradited him to California on charges of pimping linked to his operation of the website. A judge later dismissed the charges.
As it turns out, running sex ads is a lucrative business. Backpage’s internal revenue reports, according to a statement by California’s District Attorney’s Office last year, 99% of the company’s global income between Jan. 2013 and March 2015 was “directly attributable to the ‘adult’ section.” California and Texas attorney generals launched a joint investigation into Backpage last year.
Lower courts have previously ruled that the Communications Decency Law protects Backpage from criminal charges related to its adult ads. The 1996 law, intended to preserve free speech on the internet, protects website hosts from being held responsible for content shared by its users.
On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal brought by three women who claim the site allowed them to be trafficked at just 15-years-old.
Meanwhile, some suggest that cracking down on sites like Backpage places sex workers in more danger. Operating through online advertisements, they can screen clients and agree on terms, such as using protection, before meeting them. Without online ads, the industry is forced outdoors.