This afternoon the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution, 96-0, to hold Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer in contempt for ignoring a subpoena to testify before a Senate Committee investigating child sex trafficking that happens on Backpage.com. The webpage’s “adult services” section is known to law enforcement as one of the biggest facilitators of sex trafficking, including sex trafficking of minors. Backpage’s popularity with sellers and buyers of sex is due to its easy accessibility and anonymity, making it virtually risk-free. Backpage’s “adult” section also includes ads for children. Convicted child sex traffickers, including some in Pennsylvania, have used Backpage to advertise their victims. Backpage outwardly claims that it has “strict content policies to prevent illegal activity,” but it has refused to provide specific details about its internal practices to keep ads for child sex off its website. It also refuses to take down ads, even when it receives reports that an ad features children.
Last November, Senators Rob Portman and Claire McKaskill of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held an investigatory hearing on child sex trafficking on Backpage. They subpoenaed Mr. Ferrer to testify and answer questions about Backpage’s internal screening processes. He did not appear. At that same hearing, representatives from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shared actual messages that family members of advertised children sent to Backpage: “My name is [ ] and my wife is [ ]. Your website has ads featuring ads of our 16-year old daughter, [ ] posing as an escort. She is being pimped out by her old bf, and she is underage. I have emailed the ad multiple times using your website, but have gotten no response. For God’s sake, she’s only 16.” Backpage did not take the ad down.
To this day, Backpage has also refused to reveal information about how it deals with sex trafficking on its site, citing its First Amendment rights and rights under the Communications Decency Act, a federal statute that protects websites. As Sen. John McCain stated on the Senate floor this afternoon, Backpage’s recalcitrance to do anything about protecting victims is motivated by money: the company is currently worth $600 million, and its primary source of revenue are ads from its “adult services” section.
The CSE Institute commends the Senate for taking seriously Mr. Ferrer’s failure to appear and Backpage’s participation in this horrifying form of the exploitation of children. As Villanova Law alum Sen. Kelly Ayotte stated from the Senate floor, “The CEO of Backpage.com was called to testify and he refused to appear. If Backpage.com is not acting illegally they would come and [testify].” Rogue actors like Backpage must not be allowed to profit off child victims of sex trafficking. For more information about Backpage and why the Communications Decency Act does not and should not protect Backpage, see the Institute’s policy paper, here.