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Senate Committee Investigates Sex Trafficking Website

On November 19, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on its investigation into the commercial sex advertising website, Backpage.com.

Chair Rob Portman (R-OH) stated, “Over the past seven months, this subcommittee has conducted a bipartisan investigation into how sex traffickers increasingly use the Internet to advance their trade and evade detection. The aim of this investigation is very straightforward: We want to understand how lawmakers, law enforcement, and even private businesses can more effectively combat this serious crime that thrives on this online black market.” Sen. Portman continued, “A business called Backpage.com is the market leader in that industry, with annual revenues in excess of $130 million last year. With a look and layout similar to the better known Craigslist.com, Backpage has a special niche. According to one industry analyst, in 2013, eight out of every ten dollars spent on online commercial sex advertisement in the U.S. goes to Backpage. Some of that advertising is legal. Much of it is illegal.” Sen. Portman noted that “The [subcommittee] saw a compelling need to better understand the business practices of Backpage.com, especially the efforts it takes to prevent the use of its site by sex traffickers. Backpage has refused to turn over documents [about their efforts to combat sex trafficking], as well as other relevant aspects of its business. The company refused to comply with an initial subpoena by the subcommittee on July 7, stating that it was ‘over broad.’ The company again refused to comply [with a more targeted subpoena]. Refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena is rare and serious. Backpage has tried to excuse its noncompliance based on a sweeping claim of constitutional privilege…We don’t think Backpage’s response to the subpoena has been in good faith.”

Yiota G. Souras, senior vice president and general counsel, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), stated, “Online classified ad sites, such as Backpage.com, provide traffickers with a quick, easy, user-friendly platform and allows them to remain anonymous, test out new markets, attempt to evade public or law enforcement detection, and easily locate customers to consummate their sale of children for sex. Online child sex trafficking also enables traffickers to easily update an existing ad with a new location and quickly move a child to another geographic location where there are more customers seeking to purchase a child for rape or sexual abuse.” Ms. Souras continued, “NCMEC engaged in numerous discussions and meetings with Backpage regarding child sex trafficking on its website and sound practices Backpage could adopt to reduce and deter child sex trafficking in its escort ads…Though Backpage repeatedly represented that it was committed to substantially reducing child sex trafficking on its website, it made largely ineffectual adjustments to its practices and refused to adopt most of NCMEC’s recommended measures, citing its customers’ First Amendment concerns. It soon became apparent to NCMEC that despite Backpage’s assertions, it was adopting and publicizing only carefully selected sound practices, while resisting recommended substantive measures that would protect more children from being sold for sex in escort ads on Backpage.com.”

Darwin Roberts, deputy attorney general, Washington State Attorney General’s Office, also testified during the hearing.

Carl Ferrer, chief executive officer, Backpage.com, LLC, was scheduled to testify but did not appear.

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