As a new Senate report alleges that the advertising site Backpage.com covered for child sex traffickers, Backpage defends its record of working with law enforcement against trafficking.
“How could such a horrific, morally bankrupt business model find success in our America?” Nacole S., a parent of a child who was trafficked for sex on Backpage.com, testified before the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on Tuesday.
“It is time to accept that child sex trafficking has entered the digital age,” she said, noting the internet has become a “hotbed for the ugliest human behaviors…at the forefront of which are websites like Backpage.com.”
The Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations released its report on “Backpage.com's knowing facilitation of online sex trafficking” on Monday, after almost two years of investigations into the company and its practices.
Backpage.com is a website for public ad postings, similar to other sites like CraigsList. It features an “adult” posting section, and it is here where, according to the subcommittee’s report, much of suspected child sex trafficking in the U.S. allegedly travels through Backpage ads.
Online child sex trafficking has skyrocketed in the last few years, with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saying reports of suspected incidents went up 846 percent between 2010 to 2015, cited in the senate report. The center says the spike is “directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex.”
“In 2013, it (Backpage) reportedly net more than 80 percent of all revenue from online commercial sex advertising in the United States,” the report noted, and again citing the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “73 percent of the suspected child trafficking reports it receives from the public involve Backpage.”
Backpage, for its part, announced it closed up its “adult” section on Monday after the report was released, claiming the action resulted from “an accumulation of acts of government censorship using extra-legal tactics” and defending its record of working with law enforcement to fight trafficking.
“It undermines efforts by Backpage.com to cooperate with law enforcement and provide information to identify, arrest and prosecute those who engage in human trafficking,” the statement added.
Backpage.com's CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested in October in Texas on a warrant issued by California for accusations of pimping and attempting to pimp a minor. He was exonerated in a Sacramento County Superior Court in December.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court denied to hear a case against Backpage of three women who claimed they were forced into sex trafficking through ads posted on the site, Reuters reported. The lower court decision, which stands, said that the company is protected under the Communications Decency Act and is not liable for content posted by third parties.
In Monday's report, the Senate investigation found that for years, Backpage.com officials had “sanitized” ads for criminal offenses like sex trafficking of minors, by removing conspicuous words like “teenage” and “amber alert” and “lolita,” but keeping those ads on the site.
Backpage officials did this manually, but also created an automated system to filter out those keywords, the report alleged, and the system operated that way for years.
When someone would try to post an ad on Backpage with those words, the automated system would tell them not to use the word but they could still post an ad with different language.
“By October 2010, Backpage executives formalized a process of both manual and automated deletion of incriminating words and phrases, primarily through a feature called the 'Strip Term From Ad Filter',” the report stated, adding that according to Backpage executives, they were editing 70 to 80 percent of the advertisements in the “adult” section of the website.
The filter “changed nothing about the true nature of the advertised transaction or the real age of the person being sold for sex,” the report said, but “thanks to the filter, Backpage's adult ads looked 'cleaner than ever.'”
The subcommittee had subpoenaed Backpage officials for a Nov. 2015 hearing but the officials dodged the request, resulting in the first civil contempt action by the Senate in over 20 years being leveled.
In 2016, a federal court ordered Backpage to send the subpoenaed documents to the subcommittee.
“They put profits ahead of vulnerable women and children,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), chair of the subcommittee, said of Backpage on Tuesday.
“Advertisements were deliberately sanitized to conceal evidence of child prostitution, to conceal evidence of child trafficking. We know Backpage has hid its systematic editing practices from the public for years while convincing the courts and Congress it was just a host for third party content, entitled to an immunity under federal law for that reason,” he continued.
“These are not the practices of an 'ally' in the fight against human trafficking. These are the practices of a corporation intent on profiting from human trafficking – and human misery – and profit they have, at the expense of countless innocent victims.”
Backpage has touted its record of cooperating with law enforcement, providing a list of previous statements from the FBI and local police departments thanking them for their assistance in catching pimps responsible for trafficking postings on its site.
Portman, however, said at the hearing “we know now” that Backpage's claims of cooperation with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were “misleading.”
“It seems likely that Backpage has been breaking the law as it exists right now,” he said, and “based on the evidence we've collected” he and Sen. Claire McCaskill (R-Mo.) “will promptly consider” referring the matter to the Department of Justice.
Parents of child sex trafficking victims testified of the violence and trauma their children endured, along with the emotional trauma of family members.
Parent Nacole S. described how her daughter, during high school, suffered from stress and decided to leave home to make an attempt at “finding herself.” She traveled to Seattle and at a teen homeless shelter met a 22 year-old woman posing as a teen who brought her into a sex trafficking ring.
Her daughter was “repeatedly raped, beatened, threatened, and treated like a sexual object every day,” Nacole testified through tears, “while being posted as an ad on Backpage.”
“When we finally got Natalie back,” she said of her daughter, “the young girl we found wasn't the same Natalie that left our home months earlier.”
“Our new dream is simple,” she said, “to live in an America that doesn’t stand aside while little girls…are sold online like a commodity, purchased with all the same convenience that you would expect as an order on Amazon.”
Kubiiki P., mother of a child sex trafficking victim, revealed that her daughter was trafficked for months on the site. Even after she was recovered, sexually explicit pictures of her daughter were still surfacing in ads on the site.
Kubiiki called Backpage “many times” and “explained that I was the mother of the child pictured in these sexually-explicit ads. I explained that my child had been horribly sexually, physically, and emotionally abused by being trafficked on Backpage through these ads,” she said in her written testimony before the subcommittee.
She asked them to promptly remove the pictures, yet the company ignored her requests to take down the pictures of her daughter, only doing so after a period of time. A court later ordered that the trafficker of her daughter, who was “in and out of jail,” pay restitution to her daughter, but the trafficker never paid and Kubiiki had “no process” through which to collect the money.
She wanted Backpage.com to pay restitution “for being involved and profiting from the escort ads” featuring her daughter, but said the court rejected her case.
Thomas S., who also testified on Tuesday, lamented that “children have become a bargaining chip” today, “collateral damage in a huge industry of modern convenience that we enjoy online.”
“I've been disgusted and shocked by the commitment and stance that Backpage.com has taken. That Backpage somehow thinks it has the right to sell my child, and that the First Amendment gives them that right to do so and there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” he said.
“I can't believe the contempt and lack of humanity they’ve taken,” he added. “Backpage hides behind the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and they collect their money, all the while pretending to support the lofty, high-minded principals of the First Amendment. Even more amazing is that they usually win (in court).”
“Children are not acceptable collateral damage,” he concluded. “They are our hope, our future, America’s conscience.”