The controversy over Backpage.com's escort service ads and their link to child sex trafficking is traveling through the state and federal courts, the financial services industry, and the court of public opinion. It still amazes me that in 2016, a website can get away with selling underage bodies for sex.
According to our colleague in advocacy, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, we as a society are allowing Backpage.com "to be used to arrange child rape."
But now, the United States Senate, not known for unanimous action, is joining the effort for justice, by taking the website to court. I'm confident that one of these strategies will eventually get Backpage.com, and other sites like it, to quit selling kids.
We know from Covenant House's work with young and homeless sex trafficking survivors that many of them have been pimped out through Backpage.com. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 70 percent of reports the center received of suspect child trafficking posts were tied to Backpage.com.
Since last year, Backpage has been ignoring a subpoena from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The committee asked for documentation to back up the website's assertions that it screens out adult services advertisements involving children. Backpage claims that because it publishes but does not create content, it is immune from legal action under the Communications Decency Act.
We strongly disagree. There's nothing decent about how Backpage pretends to be a defender of the safety of the vulnerable young people it exploits.
The Senate committee unearthed internal emails about from Backpage.com that illustrated very lax screening practices. One email told ad screeners, "ONLY DELETE IF YOU REALLY VERY SURE PERSON IS UNDERAGE," and if in doubt, "accept the ad."
According to Senator Rob Portman, (R-Ohio), chair of the Investigations Committee, Backpage.com's screening does not work. He described how the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children located on Backpage.com a child it was searching for.
"What made this case even more incredible was that the Backpage ad actually contained a missing child poster of that same child," Sen. Portman said. "That poster had the child's real name, real age, real picture, and the date she went missing. The other pictures in the ad included topless photos. We'd certainly like to know what supposedly market-leading screening and moderation procedures missed that one."
Sen. Portman noted that this is the first time in more than two decades that the Senate has had to enforce a subpoena in court. Last week he and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the ranking member of the Investigations Committee, filed a civil action in Federal District Court to enforce the subpoena on Carl Ferrer, the chief executive of Backpage.com and require the company to turn over the requested documents.
The day of the Senate's vote, Sen. McCaskill said, "If we ignore Backpage's refusal, what does that say to companies in the future, where we need information in order to do our job? That you can give the back of your hand to the U.S. Senate and there will be no consequences?"
Nicholas Kristof takes her incredulity a step further:
"If there were a major American website openly selling heroin or anthrax, there would be an outcry. Yet we Americans tolerate a site like Backpage.com that is regularly used to peddle children."
I have faith that one way or another, our society will not let such online abuses continue, and will not let Backpage.com continue to hide behind the Communications Decency Act, which was, after all, written to protect children, not exploit them.