Backpage.com, the largest sex-services classified ads page on the web, pulled down the adult section of its site on Monday night after a stunning Senate report accused the company of knowingly allowing ads for sex-trafficked young children.
The company said it was the target of an anti-First Amendment crusade by members of Congress, but an 18-month Senate investigation said the wildly profitable company has long been hoodwinking police by claiming to weed out illegal ads — while instead merely sanitizing them.
Investigators say the company would receive ads offering sexually charged encounters and would delete the words “Lolita,” “young,” “teen” and “little girl” — which, according to documents released by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the company knew were code for underage girls.
After cleaning the offending words through the use of an automatic filter, the company would still run the rest of the ad.
“The Strip Term From Ad filter concealed the illegal nature of countless ads and systematically deleted words indicative of criminality, including child sex trafficking and prostitution of minors,” the investigators concluded. “Of course, the … filter changes nothing about the real age of the person being sold for sex.”
Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and other top company executives are slated to appear before the subcommittee on Tuesday, but just hours before the hearing, they announced they were scrubbing their site of all of their “adult” ads — and replacing them with a page claiming their First Amendment rights are being violated by Congress.
“The government has unconstitutionally censored this content,” the website tells visitors, insisting that having a space online for adult ads is actually safer than pushing it underground.
Backpage says it’s been the target of a yearslong crusade by members of Congress, led most recently by Sens. Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill, to try to push the company out of business.
The Senate subcommittee’s 53-page report, accompanied by an 840-page appendix, showed the challenges Backpage faced in grappling with advertisements in the “adult” section of its site, which includes massages, escorts and strip clubs. Backpage employees and executives struggled with the wording of ads and when to report questionable submissions to authorities for investigation.
Backpage did take some steps to cut down on illegal activity, including trying to lower their prominence on Google when someone searched for “teen escorts.” And ads that used some particularly egregious words were prevented from even being submitted to the site in the first place, according to the documents.
But bad ads still slipped through.
In one 2011 test, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children placed eight ads for underage girls, complete with pictures. In an internal email Mr. Ferrer said the ads triggered an alert, and some of them were removed in a couple of minutes, but he admitted they did not spot all eight ads.
Backpage was aware that its site could be used for underage sexual encounters, but viewed itself as better than the alternative — or even part of the “solution,” by keeping child prostitution in view where it could be monitored.
Andrew Padilla, who was in charge of spotting problem ads, said adding an age verification tool to the website wouldn’t stop child prostitution, “it only means they won’t be doing it on our site, where Backpage, NCMEC and law enforcement are in the best position to put an actual stop to the crime.”
The company ordered employees to err on the side of the customers, saying that ads should be kept up unless there was clear evidence the person was a child.
One moderator was chided for repeatedly reporting to the NCMEC ads that looked like they were for minors.
“These are the kinds of reports the cops question us about,” Joye Vaught, who was in charge of training the company’s ad moderators, said in a 2013 email to the employee. “I find them all the time, it’s just usually you who sends them.”
One employee said she knew they were “putting lipstick on a pig” in cleaning up the ads but still allowing them to run, saying that’s what the point of the business was — moderating ads for prostitution.
The company tried to hide that, going so far as to instruct employees in 2010 not to put in writing that those placing ads were prostitutes.
Backpage was created more than a decade ago to compete with classified ads site Craigslist. Craigslist pulled its adult services section six years ago, leaving Backpage as the clear leader. In 2013 one analysis said more than 80 percent of all online sex advertising went to Backpage.
The company faces a number of legal battles, including criminal charges lodged in California; an ongoing fight with the Senate committee over Mr. Ferrer’s claims of First Amendment protections; and another case where three women sued the company alleging they were trafficked as minors.
That last case was settled Monday by the Supreme Court, which left in place a lower court’s ruling that Backpage is protected by a technology shield law that says online companies aren’t generally responsible for the content their users create.
Meanwhile, the legal fight with the Senate committee is raging in the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Mr. Ferrer on Monday filed briefs arguing that Backpage is a media company protected by the First Amendment, and it shouldn’t have to share documents that show how it made “editorial decisions.”
“Intruding on a publisher’s freedom to engage in editorial practices outside the government’s prying eyes itself creates chilling effects,” Mr. Ferrer’s lawyers argued.
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