Late on the evening of Jan. 9, Backpage.com—a sort of online newspaper classified section, featuring local ads in most cities nationwide—angrily closed the virtual doors on its Adult section, claiming it was forced to do so because of ongoing “censorship” from the federal government.
The decision came just hours after the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) released a 53-page report to the media detailing the findings of a 20-month probe into Backpage’s business practices, and one day before a Senate hearing on that matter in which all five Backpage executives who appeared took the Fifth Amendment.
According to the Senate’s report—tellingly titled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking”—Backpage not only systematically edited wording to obfuscate the fact that girls in many of the ads were minors, but also coached their traffickers how to do it as well. The company didn’t keep the original versions of the ads, and was careful not to mention its editing system to law enforcement.
“We will never know how many girls and women were subject to abuse that Backpage.com helped conceal,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said at the Jan. 10 hearing. “Based on our estimate, they were editing well over half a million ads per year.
“These are not the practices of an ally in prosecuting human trafficking; these are the actions of a company that is intent on profiting from human trafficking.”
Developed as part of Village Voice Media Holdings in 2004 by CEO Carl Ferrer, Backpage leaped to the front of the online adult-services advertising world in 2010 when Craigslist—similarly accused of facilitating child sex trafficking—voluntarily shut down that portion of its site. Today, Backpage is a $600 million company operating in 97 countries, and the vast majority of the approximately $150 million it makes each year comes from the adult advertising section. Its market share of the online sex ads in the U.S. stands at about 80 percent.
Senate staffers culled through 1.1 million pages of documents extracted from Backpage over a period of months, eventually releasing the report along with an 840-page appendix of emails and other communications on which the findings are based.
In a Jan. 9 statement, Ferrer and co-owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey noted the adult section is still up in the other 96 countries where Backpage operates, moved the ads in question to the site’s Dating section, and said the Senate’s investigation was an “abuse of congressional authority” which it intends to continue fighting in court.
And Backpage’s executives are certainly no strangers to court battles.
In 2009, Kubiiki Pride found her missing 14-year-old daughter in a Backpage sex ad. She recovered her daughter, identified in court records and the documentary film I Am Jane Doe as M.A., 270 days after she disappeared—stabbed, burned, shaved, beaten and addicted to drugs—but the ads featuring her remained on Backpage despite Pride’s continued pleas for them to be removed. As she told the PSI on Jan. 10, a Backpage employee to whom she spoke went so far as to tell her that unless she was the person who paid for the ads, she had no authority to demand their removal.
As a result, Pride sued Village Voice Media Holdings—but in 2011, a federal judge in the eastern district of Missouri ruled that under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) Section 230, Backpage couldn’t be held liable for the harm done to M.A. because it was only a host, not a content creator.
“The trafficker has been in and out of jail and the court ordered her to pay restitution, but she has paid nothing,” Pride testified on Jan. 10. “When I tried to get restitution from Backpage, (which) profited from my child’s body being sold for sex, they rejected my case.”
In 2012, after a 15-year-old Seattle girl sold on Backpage was recovered by her family, Washington legislators passed a state law requiring Web sites to verify the ages of people depicted in sex ads to make sure they aren’t minors. Backpage sued the state to stop its enforcement, citing Section 230, and a state judge agreed. Consequently, the law was never enforced—and Washington had to pay Backpage approximately $200,000 in legal fees.
Meanwhile, the Seattle girl’s family—who go by the names Nacole and Tom S. in public appearances—sued Backpage for facilitating the trafficking of their daughter. In 2013, the company asked the courts to dismiss the case, but were rebuffed. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in September 2015 that Section 230 does not bar the case if Backpage participated in the ads’ creation; preliminary hearings are tentatively scheduled for this May.
Meanwhile, cases continued to stack up elsewhere. In December 2013, three teenage girls in Boston went missing, and were ultimately found by their parents after showing up in Backpage ads. The families sued and lost, then took their case to the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled in January 2016 that Section 230 of the CDA means not only is the Web site not liable for the harm done, but required the case to be dismissed even if Backpage was engaged in child sex trafficking—a criminal offense. The families appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which turned the case away on Jan. 9, 2017.
In April 2015, the PSI began investigating online sex trafficking, and found almost all roads led to Backpage. Senators asked the company to turn over documents detailing its business practices. Executives resisted until the U.S. Supreme Court forced them to comply last October, with a 7-0 vote.
“Backpage is finally running out of legal maneuvers to avoid complying with a lawful subpoena the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to enforce in federal court,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)—a former sex crimes prosecutor—said at the time. “We’re one step closer to getting to the bottom of what, if any, business practices and policies this company has to prevent criminal activity.”
In June 2015, Backpage sued Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff Tom Dart after he convinced MasterCard and Visa to stop doing business with the Web site in an effort to curb trafficking. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later sided with Backpage, citing Section 230 as well as the First Amendment.
In October 2016, Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey were arrested in Texas and extradited to California on felony charges of running an online brothel after a three-year investigation by both states. A Sacramento judge in December dismissed the case, citing Section 230.
In its ongoing search for answers about how child sex trafficking is conducted online, the PSI subpoenaed Ferrer to appear at a Nov. 19, 2015 hearing. He simply didn’t show up.
As a result, the Senate filed a motion to hold Backpage in contempt of Congress. “This hasn’t happened in 20 years,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
On March 17, 2016, the chamber passed a resolution 96-0 allowing the Senate to pursue legal action to compel Backpage’s cooperation with its investigation.
So when Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey, along with Chief Operating Officer Andrew Padilla and General Counsel Elizabeth McDougall, did come to the PSI hearing on Jan. 10, they appeared not only silent, but surly.
“One of the ongoing battles involves the overly broad and punitive subpoena for documents issued by the (subcommittee), not for any valid legislative purpose, but specifically to exert pressure on Backpage.com,” they wrote in their statement the night before.
There wasn’t any shortage of emotion in the hearing. At times, McCaskill lectured the executives seated
“They did not turn away ads selling children—they just tried to make it less obvious, and even worse, coached the pimps and traffickers on how to clean up their ads,” she said, her voice rising.
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of evil. Simply evil.”
Others echoed her sentiment, if not her volume.
“The thought that anyone can say looking for a 13-year-old (for sex) fits within a business model is
astounding to me,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “An organization that would take words away, not in order to say, ‘What are you doing?!’ but, ‘You can’t say it quite that way, let me help you say it differently so you can sell this 13-year-old’—that’s a very different business model than most Americans are used to.”
“The Web site has been linked to hundreds—hundreds—of human trafficking cases,” said McCain. “I was happy to hear last night that Backpage had shut down its Adult section. I’m sure that was a pure coincidence.”
Portman said he’d be seeking a legislative remedy to the loophole in Section 230 this session—making any Web sites that follow Backpage’s business model criminally liable for trafficking children.
And changes are sorely needed.
“The laws must be strengthened. No child should ever have to go through what my daughter went through,” said Pride. “But we also need more coordinated support for victims at the federal, state and local levels. That would have helped her start a path to recovery that she struggles with even as an adult. We need a coordinated process for children to receive restitution from everyone who harms them.”
Tom S. agreed.
“Children have become collateral damage in a fight that’s been labeled as about Internet freedom,” he told the panel. “I can’t bring myself to accept that these kids are just the cost of doing business in today’s world.”
For more about this film, www.IamJaneDoeFilm.com
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.