A congressional subcommittee’s report detailing online advertising website Backpage.com’s suspected ties to sex trafficking aired on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, a day ahead of a scheduled Sacramento hearing on fresh criminal charges against the website’s executive team.
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer and partners former Village Voice and New Times owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey are due to return Wednesday to Sacramento Superior Court on 26 new counts of money laundering and another 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping, including seven counts in which the alleged victims are children. State attorney general’s prosecutors allege the trio created multiple corporate entities to launder funds and maneuver around banks that refused to process the site’s financial transactions because of overtly sexual material.
We reported the evidence that Backpage has been far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew. Backpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site. That’s not ‘censorship’ – it’s validation of our findings.
Sens. Bob Portman, R-Ohio and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
Backpage.com shuttered its adult services section on Monday after the report on the site’s “knowing facilitation of online sex trafficking” hit the streets. The site’s spokesmen called Backpage’s move the “direct result of unconstitutional government censorship” vowing that its decision “will not end the fight for online freedom of speech.”
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“It points to the enormous burden that the government has placed on Backpage in various and sundry ways,” said Dale Leibach, a Backpage spokesman, on Tuesday.
Backpage executives refused to testify at the Tuesday hearing, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
But Washington lawmakers who released the report Monday and presented its findings Tuesday on Capitol Hill had a far different view, saying its report, not censorship, led to the website’s abrupt decision.
“Our goal was to get to the truth – and Backpage fought us every step of the way,” Sens. Bob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said in a joint statement.
“Yesterday we reported the evidence that Backpage has been far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew,” the statement continued. “Backpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site. That’s not ‘censorship’ – it’s validation of our findings.”
The subcommittee’s report, released after 20 months of investigation, flatly implicates Backpage, stating the site concealed criminal conduct by sanitizing its adult ads and stripping words and terms signaling sex trafficking and child sex trafficking – words such as “lolita,” “rape,” “amber alert” and “school girl” – under direction of Backpage CEO Ferrer.
The report also alleges Backpage coached its users on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions and that Backpage knew that it facilitated child sex trafficking.
The Senate report pegs the website as a market leader netting more than 80 percent of all revenue from online commercial sex advertising in the United States, dubbing Backpage “the leading online marketplace for commercial sex.”
Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey refused to testify at the Tuesday hearing, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The men were briefly jailed in Sacramento late last year on pimping and pandering charges connected to the site. California attorney general’s prosecutors alleged the website was the hub of a global multimillion-dollar sex trafficking and prostitution ring fueled by the millions of dollars in revenue generated by its adult advertising – much of it in the Golden State.
Backpage’s attorneys accused then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris and attorney general’s prosecutors of unconstitutional and politically motivated overreach, arguing that the ads published on the site were protected by the First Amendment.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman later threw out the allegations on free speech grounds, ruling Backpage is a third-party content provider protected by federal Communications Decency Act statutes.
A spokesman for Portman, the Ohio senator, rejected Backpage’s claims Tuesday.
“Backpage wasn’t a passive provider,” said Portman spokesman Kevin Smith. “They edited and sanitized content that covered up criminal conduct. They facilitated that to cover up criminal evidence,” calling the Senate report “an important contribution to the public debate on this.”