Congresswomen press Sessions to investigate sexual ads at Backpage.com

Jul 13, 2017
In The News

The co-chairs of a House task force battling human trafficking called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday to investigate Backpage.com after a trove of documents revealed that the website hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers and customers seeking sex.

Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) demanded in a letter that the Justice Department investigate the classifieds site “for knowingly advertising and financially benefiting from participation in sex trafficking” after information about the documents was reported by The Washington Post this week.

“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,” they wrote. “This is an utter lie.”

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 in an effort to attract customers to Backpage.

A Backpage attorney previously declined to comment on the report in The Post.

Avion did not respond to requests for comment on the documents.

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 from being held liable 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 a case Backpage is quick to comply. Backpage and some advocates say that having the ads in one location is preferable to having the ads disperse to sites in other 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 now 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 soon.

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.

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 both automated filters and human moderators to remove ads potentially involving trafficking of minors and other illegal activity. Noting its cooperation with law enforcement in particular cases, Backpage and some advocates say that having the ads in one location is preferable to having the ads disperse to sites in other countries with less enforcement.