Despite censorship claims, Backpage doing business as usual

Human Trafficking | Senators look for ways to stop the classified ad site from sex trafficking children
by Gaye Clark
Posted 1/13/17, 03:38 pm

Backpage.com abruptly closed the adult advertising section of its website in the United States on Monday, one day before executives from the company appeared before a Senate committee to answer allegations they facilitated the sex trafficking of children.

Red lettered disclaimers appeared on Backpage’s adult section reading “CENSORED.” The company said in a statement that “unconstitutional government censorship” of its site made it too costly to keep operating the adult section. “Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey said in a statement. “But the shutdown of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment.”

Backpage’s public statement of defeat does not mean the company has ceased its clandestine behavior. Although Backpage claims to have been censored, the same sex ads now appear in the company’s “dating” section.

“This highlights just how unserious Backpage is about protecting women and young girls from being trafficked,” said Emily Benavides, press secretary for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that investigated Backpage.

According to a recent report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 73 percent of the suspected child trafficking reports it receives involve Backpage. The Senate investigation found Backpage was more involved in manipulating its user’s content than it previously acknowledged. The site’s filters delete words such as “young,” “little girl,” and “fresh,” but allow the remainder of the ad to be published. According to the Senate report, Backpage moderators told investigators that everyone at Backpage knew “the adult section ads were for prostitution and that their job was to ‘put lipstick on a pig’ by sanitizing them.”

For example, in 2011, CNN ran a story about a 13-year-old girl who was sold for sex on Backpage as “Daddy’s Little Girl.” The Senate report noted such taglines were common on Backpage and CEO Carl Ferrer’s remedy was simply to add “daddy” and “little girl” to the “strip out” filter.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., ranking member of the Senate committee, said Backpage’s filtering system only perpetuated the abuse of minors. “Those children were still sold; they just tried to sanitize it,” McCaskill said Tuesday. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of evil.”

Backpage executives and their attorney refused to testify before the Senate subcommittee.

Portman said taking down the adult section constituted an admission of guilt: “Backpage has not denied a word of these findings. … That’s not censorship. That’s validation.”

Backpage has successfully defended itself in court by citing a small section of the Communications Decency Act, which says online intermediaries that host or republish speech aren’t responsible for what their customers say and do. Haley Halverson of the National Center for Sexual Exploitation said the law “has a loophole that’s shielding Backpage.com.”

“I intend to explore whether potential legislative remedies are necessary and appropriate to end the facilitation of online sex trafficking that Backpage.com has pioneered,” Portman told me.

Ferrer and two founders were cleared of pimping charges in December but still face new charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit pimping in Texas and California. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lawsuit by three sex trafficking victims sold on Backpage.

“How could such a horrific, morally bankrupt business model find success in America?” a mother whose 15-year-old daughter was repeatedly sold on Backpage asked at the Senate hearing. She said her daughter had been advertised on the website as the “Weekend Special.”

A film about trafficking, I Am Jane Doe, opens in theaters next month and features Backpage as “the Walmart of human trafficking.”

Gaye Clark

Gaye is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.

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