Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley is pressing forward with an investigation into the notorious website Backpage.com despite a lawsuit filed by the company against him alleging harassment. Hawley issued a lengthy demand for company documents in May to determine whether Backpage.com is in violation of Missouri laws regulating human trafficking.
Backpage.com is a sleazy website whose primary feature is a classified advertising forum where individuals offer and solicit casual sexual encounters. The company has been widely accused of knowingly posting classified ads in which the “sexual services” of minors are being advertised who are victims of the sex trafficking industry.
Attorney General Hawley’s letter to Backpage.com officers states that the investigation is being undertaken to determine whether the company is engaged in activity which is prohibited by Missouri’s Deceptive Merchandising Practices Act. The Attorney General’s office is demanding an extensive list of documents regarding the “sale or advertisement…of commercial sexual conduct…massage services, dating services…and other sexually oriented services.”
Last week Backpage.com filed suit in federal court seeking to block Hawley’s formal demands, saying they constituted “unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Attorneys for Backpage contend that the federal Communications Decency Act provides immunity from liability to internet websites for content created and posted by third parties.
Hawley says the litigation filed by Backpage against his office is no surprise. “They’ve stonewalled me for weeks and weeks now, and now they’re trying to sue me to stop it. My message to Backpage is there is no First Amendment right to engage in human trafficking. And this frivolous lawsuit will not deter me from pursuing the eradication of this terrible crime in Missouri.”
In the meantime, a highly damaging report has been released which belies the claims of Backpage officials that they are merely an online marketplace for personal ads posted by private parties, and that they exercise no editorial influence over the content posted by those private parties.
The Washington Post has discovered documents showing that Backpage contracted with a company from the Phillipines to create and promote material advertising commercial sexual conduct on behalf of Backpage overseas. The documents reveal that a company named Avion was hired to lure advertisers and customers seeking sexual encounters from websites run by other online competitors.
The insidious tragedies and human wreckage from Backpage.com’s online brothel continue to mount. On Christmas eve of last year, 16-year-old Desiree Robinson was found dead in a Chicago garage. She was lying in a pool of blood after her throat had been slit after being beaten and strangled. She had been advertised as a female “companion” on Backpage.com, and a 33-year-old Chicago man has now been charged as her pimp.
Just the month before, a 20-year-old woman named Ashley Mays was found strangled to death inside a suburban Atlanta hotel room. May was nine-months pregnant, and had been strung up with zip ties binding her hands and feet. She, too, had been advertised as an “escort” on the Backpage.com site.
The National Association of Attorney Generals has described Backpage as a “hub of human trafficking.” The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that nearly 75 percent of the approximately 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives each year involve minors whose availability for sexual conduct has been advertised on Backpage.com.
Under pressure from federal congressional committees investigating human trafficking, Backpage discontinued its “adult services” section early this year. However, those sexually oriented ads have simply been moved to other personal classified sections advertising “dating,” “massages,” and “escorts.”
Curiously, Attorney General Hawley is not using an anti-sex trafficking law recently adopted by the Missouri General Assembly as the primary basis for his investigation. Last year the Missouri Legislature approved an amendment to the state’s human trafficking statutes criminalizing the marketing of women and children for sexual conduct.
That new law created the crime of “advertising the availability” of an individual for sexual activity who is underage or is acting under coercion or bondage. Instead, Hawley is using the state’s consumer protection statutes banning merchandising practices that are deceptive in nature.
The U.S. Congress has also enacted legislation making it a federal crime to advertise online the “sexual services” of children and women who are enslaved in the sex trafficking trade. The new law was sponsored by Missouri Congresswoman Ann Wagner, who has made the battle against human trafficking a centerpiece of her career in Congress.
Missouri U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill has also been a fierce opponent of the sex trafficking industry. McCaskill has been a key figure in congressional investigations probing the sleazy operations of Backpage.com. The owners of Backpage refused to respond to questions from McCaskill and other senators, invoking their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.
Backpage founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and chief executive Carl Ferrer are currently facing criminal charges in California for pimping and money laundering. Numerous civil suits have also been filed against the company in courts across the country, including one involving a 15-year-old girl in Washington state who had been trafficked on Backpage.com for three months.