The U.S. Senate has passed a resolution that allows all materials to be released from an online sex trafficking investigation of classified website Backpage.com. For two years, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, has led the charge in a bipartisan U.S. Senate Subcommittee investigation about the company. McCaskill says the resolution she sponsored will “untie the hands of law enforcement” in their efforts to fight sex trafficking.
“I will now be forwarding these documents to criminal prosecutors in Missouri and any attorneys general around the country that are doing civil actions to make sure they have all the information that we had and all the documents that show the involvement of Backpage,” says McCaskill.
The Subcommittee found that the company knowingly enabled criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls. It also says Backpage covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits.
“They were actively participating in helping people shape their ads, removing words from advertisements, not calling the police when people were using adjectives that would indicate someone was underage,” says McCaskill.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has reported an 846% increase in reports of suspected child trafficking between 2010 and 2015, which it found “directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex.” The center said that 73% of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives each year involve ads on Backpage.
The U.S. Senate Subcommittee’s report said that more than 93% of Backpage’s ad revenue in 2011 came from its adult section, reaping $135 million in gross revenue in 2014, with projected revenue of nearly $250 million by 2019.
The legislation was also sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Tom Carper, D-Delaware.
Getting Backpage to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s investigation eventually took an act of Congress. The company would not comply with subpoenas issued by the U.S. Senate. As a result, the U.S. Senate took the unusual act of unanimously approving civil contempt charges against the company. It’s the first time in more than 20 years that such measures have been taken. The move aimed to get Backpage officials to appear before a U.S. Senate committee and explain its protocols for the screening of suspected sex trafficking cases on its website.
Backpage fought the charges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices sided with the U.S. Senate and ordered the company to hand over all documents under subpoena. More than 200,000 documents were turned over to McCaskill’s committee.
The panel’s investigation eventually led authorities to charge Backpage’s CEO with pimping.
McCaskill and some of her colleagues have also recommended to the U.S. Department of Justice that it launches a criminal review of Backpage. The bipartisan group of Senators say they believe there is sufficient evidence to warrant one. The Justice Department has not publicly responded to the request.
McCaskill and a bipartisan group of Senators have also introduced legislation which aims to tighten federal law based on arguments made by Backpage. McCaskill says the measure would:
• Allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitated the crimes against them;
• Eliminate federal liability protections for websites that assist, support, or facilitate a violation of federal sex trafficking laws; and
• Enable state law enforcement officials, not just the federal Department of Justice, to take action against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, has introduced a slightly broader bill. It seeks to change the federal criminal code to say that any website provider who publishes information from anyone, “with reckless disregard that the information … is in furtherance of” sex trafficking of a person under 18 “shall be fined … or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
Backpage has escaped many civil and criminal actions aimed at shutting down its sex-related ads by citing federal law which states that no website “shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Backpage says it is not liable because the company simply hosts ads developed by others. The company has stated that it monitors and removes thousands of ads and helps law enforcement track down pimps and rescue trafficked children.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Goggle opposes the McCaskill and Wagner bills. The technology company says the measure would create “a trial lawyer bonanza of overly broad civil lawsuits.” The Internet Association sings a similar tune by calling the bill overly broad and “counterproductive in the fight to combat human trafficking.”