An online classified advertising website that has been widely accused of facilitating the sex trafficking of children has temporarily succumbed to pressure from federal authorities. Last week Backpage.com disabled the “adult services” section of its website, which has been described as the “Wal-Mart of human trafficking.”
Backpage took the action following a two-year investigation by an special U.S. Senate subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has been a leading figure in the targeted Senate investigation of the practices of the sleazy Backpage operation.
Backpage chief executive officer Carl Ferrer and other company officials were subpoenaed to appear before the Senate committee last week. They all refused to answer questions from Senator McCaskill and other committee members, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, family members victimized by the website’s unconscionable conduct shared their revolting and heartbreaking stories.
One mother explained how her 15-year-old daughter had been sold for “sexual services” for a three-month period through classified ads on Backpage. She said her daughter had been marketed as a “Weekend Special.” “How can such a horrific, morally bankrupt business model find success in America?” she asked.
The United States Congress took action two years ago to combat classified advertising websites that market the availability of individuals for casual sexual encounters. Congress passed a bill known as the SAVE (Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation) Act, which was sponsored and pushed by St. Louis area Congresswoman Ann Wagner. The Missouri Legislature passed a similar law last year sponsored by State Representative Elijah Haahr.
The national SAVE Act made it a federal offense to “distribute advertising that offers a commercial sex act” or to “knowingly benefit financially from or receive anything of value” from the advertisement of “sexual services.” Prior federal law had provided legal immunity to websites offering third-party advertising under the so-called Communications Decency Act.
At the time, Congresswoman Wagner stated: “Over the last ten years, prostitution has migrated to an online marketplace. Online sex customers log onto websites and order a young girl into their hotel room as easily as if they were ordering a pepperoni pizza. Online classified advertising services such as Backpage.com have become the primary vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world.”
It has been estimated that Backpage.com generates more than $37 million a year in revenue from their slimy online marketplace. The corporation has an active presence in 97 countries worldwide and is valued at more than $500 million. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) says that 71% of all child sex trafficking reports they receive are related to ads placed on Backpage.
Law enforcement authorities believe that more than 80 percent of the company’s profits come from the online sex trade. Illinois Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has said that “forums like Backpage have become playgrounds for pimps and traffickers, resulting in the destruction of countless lives in the process.”
Backpage spokesmen bemoan what they describe as an assault on freedom of expression. “For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed. But new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States,” the company declared in a formal statement.
However, the recent actions by Backpage operatives should not be interpreted in any way as a wholesale retreat from the sex trafficking business. The company still retains its “dating section” and “massage” and “escort” sections that remain populated by ads that appear to be seeking or inviting sexual hook-ups.
Attorneys for Backpage have made the ludicrous argument that they are assisting law enforcement by luring human traffickers onto their website to be identified by federal, state, and local police cybercrime units. The company jokingly encourages contributions to organizations that are battling the very criminal behavior they are peddling.
Liz McDougal, attorney for the NCMEC, derided Backpage’s claims that they are “partners” in tagging agents of human trafficking enterprises. “I don’t think you can be in the business of providing an online bazaar for escort ads that include the purchase and sale of children for sex, and say that you are online to help fight the problem.”
Last fall, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris charged Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and company owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey with charges of pimping a minor and conspiracy, accusing them of running “the world’s top online brothel.” The charges were dismissed, but new charges have now been filed accusing the three of money laundering and conspiracy to commit pimping.
St. Louis is regarded as one of the top twenty locales in the nation for human trafficking because of its central location in the Midwest. Two years ago a 26-year-old man was charged in U.S. District Court in St. Louis with prostituting a 15 and 16-year-old girl by posting ads on the Backpage website.
Senator McCaskill says that she and her committee will continue to keep the heat on the corporate lowlifes at Backpage. “As a former sex crimes prosecutor, I know that behind these cold financial statistics are survivors traumatized from years of abuse and degradation, and families suffering through years of terror and uncertainty concerning the fate of their loved ones.”