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Backpage Removes Adult Ads, Cries Free Speech Violation After Scathing Senate Sex Trafficking Report

In advance of a Senate hearing today discussing a scathing report that accused an online classifieds site of abetting child trafficking, Backpage removed the adult content section from its website.

Much of the backlash on Twitter came from professed sex workers, arguing they would have to turn to less safe ways to find clients now.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the chairman and ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, published the report Monday as the culmination of an 18-month investigation into Backpage and online sex trafficking — which included lawmakers using a federal court order, the first civil contempt action approved by the Senate in two decades, to make the website turn over documents.

“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),” the report states.

“…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… 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.”

The report found that Backpage “has automatically deleted from ads before publication include ‘lolita,’ ‘teenage,’ ‘rape,’ ‘young,’ ‘amber alert,’ ‘little girl,’ ‘teen,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘school girl'” and then let the rest of the ad run anyway, moving to “coaching its customers on how to post ‘clean’ ads for illegal transactions.”

“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. Backpage also knows that advertisers use its site extensively for child sex trafficking, but the company has often refused to act swiftly in response to complaints about particular underage users—preferring in some cases to interpret these complaints as the tactics of a competing escort,” the report continues. “Backpage may also have tried to manipulate the number of child-exploitation reports it forwards to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”

The chief executive officer of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, and former owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey were on Capitol Hill today to testify about the report.

“After our report last night. BACKPAGE SHUT DOWN ITS SEX CLASSIFIEDS. Investigations matter,” McCaskill tweeted.

In a company statement Monday, Backpage said it removed the adult section “as the direct result of unconstitutional government censorship.”

“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed, but new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States,” the statement said, adding that the goal appears to be either “’suffocate’ Backpage out of existence or use the awesome powers of the government to force Backpage to follow in the footsteps of Craigslist and abandon its Adult advertising section.”

The company included a quote from Lois Lee, founder and president of Children of the Night, arguing that the site was “a critical investigative tool depended on by America’s vice detectives and agents in the field to locate and recover missing children and to arrest and successfully prosecute the pimps who prostitute children.”

They also cited the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation saying the Senate subcommittee has conducted an “invasive, burdensome inquiry into Backpage.com’s editorial practices [that] creates an intense chilling effect, not only for Backpage but for any website operator seeking to define their own editorial viewpoint and moderation procedures for the third-party content they host.”

“This will not end the fight for online freedom of speech,” the company added. “Backpage.com will continue to pursue its efforts in court to vindicate its First Amendment rights and those of other online platforms for third party expression.”

The Justice Department on Monday released a national strategy to combat sex trafficking, calling for policies that respond “to evolving trends with respect to the prostitution of children, including the increased involvement of gangs and the advertisement of children online.”

The report noted the case against Eric Omuro, myRedBook.com’s owner, who was sentenced to 13 months in prison in 2015. “MyRedBook purported to provide ‘Escort, Massage, and Strip Club Reviews,’ but in fact hosted advertisements for prostitution – as well as ads for minor sex trafficking victims – complete with explicit photos, lewd physical descriptions, menus of sexual services, hourly and nightly rates, and customer reviews of the sex workers’ services,” it said.