Senators blast Backpage executives as site closes adult section

Senators blast Backpage executives as site closes adult section

Senators lashed out at executives from the online classifieds site Backpage.com on Capitol Hill Tuesday in a tense and emotional hearing that came just hours after the site took down its controversial adult section.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on investigations released a report the day before the hearing accusing the site of knowingly facilitating child sex trafficking. 

“These are not the practices of an ‘ally’ in the fight against human trafficking,” panel Chairman Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe case for bipartisan solutions GOP lawmakers condemn attempted attacks on Democrats Trump takes steps to punish Saudi Arabia MORE (R-Ohio) said during the hearing. “These are the practices of a corporation intent on profiting from human trafficking, and human misery, and profit they have, at the expense of countless innocent victims.”

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On Monday, the day the report was released, Backpage closed its adult section, with links to the pages being redirected to a notice claiming that they had been “unconstitutionally censored.”

“As the direct result of unconstitutional government censorship, Backpage.com has removed its Adult content section from the highly popular classified website, effective immediately,” read an announcement on the site. 

“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed, but new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”

Portman denied that the panel had engaged in censorship.

“Backpage has not denied a word of these findings,” he said. “Instead, several hours after the report was issued yesterday afternoon, the company announced the closure of its adult section — claiming ‘censorship.’  But that’s not censorship.  That’s validation of our findings.”

Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage, and four other former and current executives of the website drew bipartisan ire from the panel, with each senator on the panel blasting the group and accusing them of enabling sex trafficking.

Ferrer and the others, invoking their First and Fifth Amendment rights, declined to testify or answer the senators’ fiery questions during the panel session.

Ferrer was arrested in October on a variety of pimping charges, including pimping a minor, with prosecutors alleging that his site accepted money from underage prostitutes. A California judge later threw out the charges.

Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris later refiled charges against Ferrer and the other executives. Harris is now a Democratic senator from California and sits on the subcommittee that conducted Tuesday’s hearing.

The subcommittee had also invited parents of child sex trafficking victims who had been featured in ads on Backpage to testify. 

When the site’s executives were being dismissed from the hearing after refusing to respond to questions, Portman and the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMissouri New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck Mellman: The triumph of partisanship MORE (Mo.), invited them to stick around to listen to the testimony. Ferrer and the others silently filed out of the room before the parents came in.

The three parents at the hearing, who all declined to be identified by last name, detailed the horrific treatment their children received at the hands of sex traffickers and their anger at Backpage, which they accuse of hosting ads of them. 

One mother, who went by Nacole S. talked about how her daughter, Natalie, was taken in by a sex ring after she had run away from home.

“I can’t imagine her fear and bewilderment at what was happening to her as she was repeatedly raped, beaten, threatened and treated like a sexual object every day, while being posted on an ad on Backpage,” Nacole said, choking back tears. “I honestly try not to think about it.”

Backpage received some good news on Monday when the Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s decision to uphold a law that protects sites against lawsuits over content posted by users on their pages. The decision came in a lawsuit that was brought against Backpage by three women who claimed that the site enabled their forced prostitution.

Internet freedom groups have rallied to Backpage's defense, accusing the government of unfairly targeting the site for posts made by its users.

“This issue is about far more than just one company or one form of speech; it’s about protecting the right of all Americans to freely express themselves online and to find platforms for their constitutionally protected speech,” Nuala O’Connor, head of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a statement. “This is an important reminder that our online freedoms remain under threat."

“While the fundamental legal framework protecting free speech remains strong, too often we see government officials attempt to circumvent these protections to achieve their censorship goals.”

—Updated at 2:02 p.m.