SEPT. 16, 2016 — If Backpage.com limited its online classified advertising to core services — auto repair, second-hand merchandise sales and honest jobs — chances are that neither the Supreme Court nor the U.S. Senate would give a hoot about the company’s activities. It’s that “adult services” category involving porn film casting, massage providers and escort services that has won Backpage mountains of well-deserved scorn.
Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have spent months pressing Backpage executives for answers about why the website keeps surfacing in criminal cases as a marketing venue for child sex traffickers around the country. The company refused to provide more than the 16,000 pages of documents already subpoenaed, until the Supreme Court ordered it to comply with a Senate demand for more information.
Backpage says the editorial functions of its website, which is tailored to local advertisers in cities around the country, are covered by First Amendment protections. It’s a ludicrous argument. This isn’t about the right to publish pornography. It’s about whether the site helps enable illegal activities that victimize children and other exploited individuals.
A federal appeals court on Sept. 2 ordered Backpage and its chief executive, Carl Ferrer, to comply with a Senate subpoena for documents that might help senators determine whether the website is aware of and profits from the illegal activities of its clients. The Supreme Court correctly ruled this week to sustain the Senate subpoena. Ferrer must comply.
Backpage places a note on its adult-related sites that users must agree to report any illegal activities, including “suspected exploitation of minors and/or human trafficking.” But some of the sites’ users specifically troll for minors and human-trafficking victims.
It remains unclear what McCaskill and Portman hope to find in the additional documents, or how they expect Backpage to verify that advertisers are not human traffickers. Any decent corporate citizen would get out of this business altogether. Decency is clearly not the goal in Backpage’s adult section.
Much of the trafficking industry gravitates to conventions and big sporting events. Personnel working at such events can be on the alert for telltale signs, such as a quiet girl in the lobby accompanied by a much older man, or a young person who seems afraid to make eye contact.
Several major hotel chains and taxi services have pledged to carry out such training. Law enforcement needs all the help it can get to address the problem.
In the meantime, the Senate pressure at least drives home the message that the nation is tired of businesses that put profits ahead of the safety of exploited children and young adults.