Backpage.com responds to Senate report by labeling adult ads ‘censored’

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Online classified marketplace Backpage.com announced late Monday that it has shut down its sex advertising section, citing “unconstitutional government censorship,” just hours after a U.S. Senate subcommittee released findings alleging that the site knowingly edited out evidence of child sex trafficking.

Backpage.com has spent years fighting legal challenges over allegations that it facilitates prostitution, raising as a defense free speech arguments and protections provided under the Communications Decency Act. Visitors to the site’s adult content section now see a page topped with the word “censored” in red letters. The company cited government pressure on credit-card companies to cease doing business with the site.

“This will not end the fight for online freedom of speech,” the company said in a statement. “Backpage.com will continue to pursue its efforts in court to vindicate its First Amendment rights and those of other online platforms for third party expression.”

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who helped lead the investigation, responded to the company at a hearing in Washington on Tuesday, saying the decision by the website was “validation of the findings in the report.”

Backpage.com is an online classified marketplace, similar to Craigslist, in which people who want to sell a couch or rent an apartment post an ad. But Backpage is better known as one of the biggest web platforms for sex ads and prostitution, particularly since Craigslist’s decision to shut down its “adult” section in 2010.

What the developments over the last 24 hours may mean for Backpage in contending with ongoing lawsuits, including one in Washington State, remains unclear. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday put an end to one suit, declining to review a decision in Massachusetts that Backpage was protected under federal law against a claim that it enabled sex traffickers to advertise their victims online.

Backpage Chief Executive Officer Carl Ferrer and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Padilla, as well as former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, appeared at the Senate hearing on Tuesday in Washington: They declined to answer any questions posed by senators, citing their First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights. Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin face charges in California of conspiracy to commit pimping and money laundering. They have denied any wrongdoing.

The report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is the result of almost two years of investigation. It took an unusual lawsuit by the Senate, against Ferrer and Backpage.com, to force the company to turn over documents and make its executives available to the committee. The Senate panel reviewed over a million pages of internal documents from Backpage, including e-mails and policies related to its editing and moderating practices.

The inquiry found that Backpage stripped advertisements of such terms as “Lolita” and “Amber Alert,” code words that the sex for sale was with underage girls and boys, then posted the sanitized advertisements. The effort aimed to clean up posts without stopping the potential criminal activity, according to the investigation.

“Those children were still sold, they just tried to sanitize it; that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of evil,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said at the hearing on Tuesday.

(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Dune Lawrence / Featured Image via CNN