Five members of Congress who head anti-human-trafficking groups called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch a criminal investigation of Backpage.com after a trove of documents revealed that the website hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers and customers seeking sex.
Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who lead a subcommittee that has investigated Backpage since 2015, along with Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) demanded on Thursday that the Justice Department examine the classifieds site after information about the documents was reported by The Washington Post this week.
Wagner and Maloney, co-chairs of a House task force on human trafficking, accused Backpage of “knowingly advertising and financially benefiting from participation in sex trafficking.”
“Backpage.com has long argued that it is a mere third-party platform with no responsibility for the sex trafficking ads that are posted on its website,” the congresswomen wrote in a letter to Sessions. “This is an utter lie.”
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Portman, found in January that Backpage was removing offensive terms from its sex ads but allowing the ads, some with possible child-trafficking content, to remain posted. The committee wrote to Sessions saying that it had “determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that violations of law may have occurred.”
The newly revealed documents, obtained through an unrelated lawsuit, show workers at Avion BPO in the Philippines focused on adding and promoting sexual ads. In some instances the workers used language including “Let a young babe show you the way” and “Little angel seeks daddy” in fake ads they posted on other sites to attract customers to Backpage.
A Backpage attorney did not respond to a request for comment on the letter Thursday.
In various court cases, Dallas-based Backpage has contended that it aggressively screens for improper ads and is legally protected by the federal Communications Decency Act, which shields website operators against liability for content posted by their users. Backpage has long claimed that it was not involved in the creation of content on its site.
The company also has stressed that when police or federal agents request help with cases, it complies quickly. Backpage and some advocates say that having the ads in one location is preferable to having the ads dispersed to sites in countries with less enforcement.
Wagner and Maloney have also proposed an alteration to the Communications Decency Act clarifying that the 1996 law “was never intended to provide legal protection to websites that facilitate traffickers” and enabling “vigorous enforcement” under both criminal and civil law for websites with content “relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking.”
The bill was introduced in April and has 30 co-sponsors. It would also allow states to pursue criminal cases and victims to seek civil remedies. The Senate, whose Homeland Security Committee issued a scathing report on Backpage in January, is expected to introduce its own legislation.
Both bills are certain to face serious opposition from those fearing abuse of the law and First Amendment violations that would inhibit the freedom of the Internet.
In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Portman said he supported the Communications Decency Act but that it was not intended to protect people engaged in criminal activity. He cited the Post report as evidence that “Backpage workers were active co-creators of many of these sex advertisements including those that seek to traffic women and underage girls. I believe the legal consequences should be that they should lose their immunity under the Communications Decency Act. And that’s why we’ve asked the Justice Department today to review this matter.”
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Backpage is an online classified-ad site similar to Craigslist. In 2010, after Craigslist closed its “adult services” section under intense pressure, many of the ads migrated to Backpage. The ads now in Backpage’s “dating” section are seen by many as thinly veiled offers of prostitution, and underage women who have been trafficked on the site have come forward in recent years to detail their ordeals.
In their letter to the attorney general, Wagner and Maloney urged Sessions to go after Backpage under an existing criminal law banning sex trafficking of children. “We see no reason,” the congresswomen wrote, “why a criminal case should not be brought against Backpage.com for its criminal role in sex trafficking in America.”
Backpage has said that it uses automated filters and human moderators to remove ads potentially involving trafficking of minors and other illegal activity.