During a week that media attention was focused on President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nomination Senate hearings, another US Senate hearing investigated Backpage, a Dallas-based classified ads website that displays advertisements for cars and furniture, as well as “escorts” and “body rubs.”
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report concluding that Backpage had knowingly facilitated underage trafficking by actively editing ads posted in the “adult services” section. The website’s top executives were subpoenaed to a hearing where Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) laid out their findings, based on over a million pages of internal company documents.
The Subcommittee heard from parents of underage girls who had been sold into sexual slavery and whose services were featured on Backpage listings.
For parents Tom and Nacole [whose last name was not used in the press], this was a day they dreamed would come. Their daughter, who ABC News called “Natalie,” was repeatedly sold for sex on Backpage when she was only 15 years old.
“They took everything from my little girl,” said Tom. Tom and Nacole traveled halfway across the country to testify at this Senate hearing, hoping that sharing their story may lead to Backpage being held accountable.
Backpage isn’t the only company involved in the illegal sex trafficking of minors, but it found itself in the spotlight on Capitol Hill.
The Subcommittee found that Backpage wasn’t just hosting adult ads people posted on their site, it was actively editing them – erasing words that indicated underage trafficking. Through their automatic word filtering system, the site erased terms like “Lolita, “Little Girl” and even “Amber Alert” from ads posted in “adult only” section. Backpage then posted the “cleaned up” ads to the site.
“The fact that these terms were stripped out through this screening process does not mean that that girls age was magically changed,” Sen. Portman told Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer during the hearing. “In fact, what you have done, of course, is to cover up the fact that many underage girls were sold on your site, making it harder for law enforcement, parents and committed aid groups to find those kids who need help.”
One by one, Ferrer, co-founders Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey, and other Backpage executives refused to testify at the hearing. On their social media accounts, Backpage called the Senate investigation a violation of their First Amendment rights.
All of us understand that the First Amendment was intended to protect the ordinary communication rights of citizens, not the illegal activity of criminals seeking to make a profit and prey on minors. Backpage owners and executives should be punished for their crimes and the inevitable damage they inflicted on so many families.