Senate Holds Backpage in Contempt of Congress in Sex Trafficking Investigation

The Senate voted Thursday to hold Backpage.com—a classifieds site—in contempt of Congress after the company refused to appear at a child sex trafficking hearing in November or produce relevant documents. The 96-0 vote was the Senate’s first vote for civil contempt charges in two decades.

In October 2015, Backpage and its CEO, Carl Ferrer, received a congressional subpoena from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to answer questions regarding the site’s safety protocols for ads, some of which have been connected to sex trafficking involving minors. Both parties, however, refused to cooperate in the lawmakers’ investigation, citing First Amendment protections.

“The contempt that Backpage has shown for our bipartisan investigation has now been met with the unanimous contempt of the full U.S. Senate,” said Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member. “This historic vote makes a clear statement — we are fully committed to getting to the bottom of this company’s business practices and policies for preventing the trafficking of children, and we will get these answers.”

Backpage, an online advertising site, nets more than 80 percent of all revenue made from online commercial sex advertising in the United States. At least some of that revenue may be made from content advertising child sex trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), Backpage is involved in at least 71 percent of the suspected child trafficking reports the organization receives from its CyberTipline.

Backpage maintains that it utilizes safety procedures to screen for potential traffickers. The company, however, has refused to provide the Senate Subcommittee with documents related to those procedures.

Last November, the Subcommittee issued a report that uncovered “substantial evidence that Backpage edits the content of some ads, including by deleting words and images, before publication.”  The report goes on to say that “these deletions likely served to remove evidence of the illegality of the underlying transaction. Specifically, as part of its moderation process, it appears that Backpage will delete particular words or images from an advertisement before posting it to the web, if those words or images violate its terms of service.”

“The aim of my and Senator McCaskill’s investigation is straightforward: We want to understand how lawmakers, law enforcement, and even private businesses can more effectively combat this serious crime that thrives on an online black market,” said Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), the Subcommittee’s Chairman, before the vote. “Traffickers have found refuge and new customers through websites that specialize in advertising ‘ordinary’ prostitution and lawful escort services.”

The contempt vote allows the Office of the Senate Legal Counsel to bring a lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in order to request an order for compliance with the Senate Subcommittee’s subpoena.

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