Fighting accusations from members of Congress that it facilitated child sex trafficking, the classified advertising site Backpage.com abruptly closed its adult advertising section in the United States on Monday, saying years of government pressure left it no choice but to shutter its most popular and lucrative feature.
The decision came shortly after a Senate panel released a report alleging Backpage concealed criminal activity by removing words from ads that would have exposed child sex trafficking and prostitution. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is scheduled to hold a hearing on the report Tuesday morning. Backpage’s founders and executives will appear in the hearing but do not plan to testify, according to their attorneys.
In a related development Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lawsuit by three sex-trafficking victims who claimed Backpage promoted the sexual exploitation of minors.
Backpage said in a statement that scrutiny of the site by government officials has made it too costly to keep operating the adult section. The company rejected the subcommittee’s findings, saying the decision was the result of “unconstitutional government censorship.”
“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed,” Backpage said, “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.”
Backpage has been the target of multiple lawsuits and investigations in recent years focusing on its adult ads, and its founders and executives are currently fighting money-laundering and pimping charges in California.
The ads for escorts, body-rubs and adult entertainment, many of them including revealing photos as part of the come-on, were an important source of revenue for Backpage, which operates like Craigslist, with users paying to advertise a range of goods and services. Advocates say such advertisements have improved safety for sex workers by allowing them to negotiate services online rather than in the streets. But the National Association of Attorneys General and other law enforcement officials have argued that Backpage and sites like it provide an outlet for people who seek to sexually exploit minors.
Backpage launched in 2004 and expanded significantly six years later when Craigslist shut down its adult advertising section under pressure from law enforcement and Congress. On Monday night, disclaimers appeared on Backpage’s adult section reading “CENSORED” in red letters and “the government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”
The federal Communications Decency Act provides immunity to website operators that publish third-party content online, but multiple lawsuits have argued that the 1996 law does not protect Backpage because the site contributes to illegal activity — claims Backpage has vigorously denied.
The Senate subcommittee raised similar concerns Monday. Its report alleged that Backpage knowingly hid child sex trafficking and prostitution by deleting incriminating terms from its ads before publication. The report found that the company used a feature that automatically scrubbed words such as “teenage,” “rape” and “young” from some ads, while manually removing terms from others.
The subcommittee also alleged that Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey still own financial stakes in the company, despite claiming that they sold their shares roughly two years ago.
The panel has been investigating Backpage since June 2015. Initially, the company refused to turn over subpoenaed documents, but a federal court ordered the company to comply with the probe last summer.
Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who spearheaded the investigation, said Backpage’s decision to close the adult section showed that it was “complicit” in online sex trafficking.
“Backpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site,” the senators said in a statement. “That’s not ‘censorship’ — it’s validation of our findings.”
Larkin and Lacey are scheduled to appear at Tuesday’s hearing, along with Backpage’s chief executive, chief of operations and general counsel. Several alleged “victims of Backpage’s practices” are also slated to appear, according to the subcommittee’s site. In a letter to the subcommittee, attorneys for Backpage said Larkin, Lacey and the others do not plan to testify, and compared the subcommittee’s probe to the anti-communist crusades of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
In a separate statement, Larkin and Lacey cited Backpage’s list of legal battles, saying courts in multiple states have sided with the site in litigation over its adult ads.
“Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” Larkin and Lacey said in a statement. “But the shut-down of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future.”
Backpage contends that its adult section has become a resource for law enforcement agencies and says the closing of its adult section will not reduce human trafficking. According to Backpage attorneys, local and federal authorities around the country have turned to the site for help tracking down people who have “impermissibly sought to use the internet as a platform to commit abhorrent crimes.” The site has long collaborated with law enforcement officers, the attorneys said, and has donated to Children of the Night, an organization whose mission is to rescue children from prostitution.
Children of the Night Founder and President Lois Lee called the site a “critical investigative tool” that has helped authorities arrest pimps and recover missing children.
“The ability to search for and track potentially exploited children on a website and have the website bend over backwards to help and cooperate with police the way Backpage did was totally unique,” Lee said in a statement. “It not only made law enforcement’s job easier, it made them much more effective at rescuing kids and convicting pimps.”
Along with Lee’s remarks, Backpage offered two pages of what it said were testimonials from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, praising the site for assisting investigations. “I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target,” read one testimonial, attributed to the Denver Police Department. “I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”
In October, authorities raided the Backpage’s headquarters in Dallas and arrested Chief Executive Carl Ferrer on charges of pimping a minor and conspiracy, after an investigation by state attorneys general found that prostitution ads posted to the site involved sex-trafficking victims. Authorities also charged Larkin and Lacey with conspiracy to commit pimping. At the time, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris accused themof designing Backpage to be “the world’s top online brothel.”
A judge dismissed the charges in December, but Harris filed new charges shortly after, accusing the trio of money laundering and conspiracy to commit pimping, as the Los Angeles Times reported. Attorneys for the men say the charges are baseless.