WASHINGTON — A Senate investigation into child-sex trafficking has uncovered evidence that employees of a major sex advertising website deleted incriminating evidence from ads posted on its site — allegedly helping to conceal illegal activity, rather than reporting it to authorities.
The website, Backpage.com, used a filter that automatically stripped out words that would have revealed a child was being sold for sex—terms such as “Lolita,” “amber alert,” “fresh,” and “school girl,” according to a report issued Monday by a Senate investigative panel. Then employees would post the edited ad in its adult section.
“Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads,” the report states. “At the direction of CEO Carl Ferrer, the company programmed this electronic filter to ‘strip’—that is, delete—hundreds of words indicative of sex trafficking (including child sex trafficking) or prostitution from ads before their publication.”
Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, did not immediately respond to a voicemail and email seeking comment. But Dale Leibach, who said he was acting as a spokesman, issued a statement after 9 p.m. Monday night saying that due to "government censorship," Backpage had removed its adult content section from its sites.
"This will not end the fight for online freedom of speech," Leibach's statement said. "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."
After the statement was released, however, the site still included sex ads in its adult section, including more than a dozen in one city alone describing themselves as "young."
Backpage is involved in 73% of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives from the general public, the report says, adding that the site has been called a “hub” of “human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors” by law enforcement officials.
More than 400 cases of child sex trafficking across 47 states have been linked to the website — including at least 13 in Ohio and six in Missouri over the last several years. Those figures stem from a probe, launched in 2015 by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who lead the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs' investigatory subcommittee. Portman is the chairman, and McCaskill is the ranking Democrat.
In its Monday report, the subcommittee found:
*Employees would manually edit out red-flag words that the filter did not catch, including terms that hinted at criminal activity, such as “teen” and “young.”
*Under direction from Ferrer, the company’s CEO, employees “coached” its users to “clean ads” to hide evidence of child sex-trafficking. “For example, in 2012, a user advertising sex with a ‘teen’ would get the error message: ‘Sorry, ‘teen’ is a banned term’.” By redrafting the ad, the user would then be permitted to post “a sanitized version.”
*Backpage.com employees were aware that prostitution was occurring through the site and may have intentionally under-reported instances of that to authorities.
“ … A former moderator, told Subcommittee staff that all employees involved in adult moderation knew that the ads they reviewed offered sex for money,” the report says. “According to her, moderators ‘went through the motions of putting lipstick on a pig, because when it came down to it, it was what the business was about'—that is, moderating ads for prostitution.”
The report says that even when Backpage officials identified a case of child exploitation, they may have limited the number of reports sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In an email, one executive wrote: “If we don’t want to blow past 500 [reports] this month, we shouldn’t be doing more than 16 a day. [W]e can’t ignore the ones that seem like trouble but if we start counting now it might help us on the ones where we’re being liberal with moderator reports.”
Portman and McCaskill have called the CEO and other top executives at Backpage.com to testify at a hearing on Tuesday. It’s not clear if those officials will answer the senators’ questions or if they will plead the 5th amendment against self-incrimination. At a 2015 hearing, Ferrer defied a committee subpoena requiring him to appear before the panel.
Law enforcement authorities in various states have tried to crack down on Backpage.com. Ferrer and two other top employees were arrested last fall; Ferrer was charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping, while his deputies were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
A California judge dismissed those charges in early December, saying the federal Communications Decency Act protects free speech and gives the website operators immunity for content posted by users.
But California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who since has taken office as a U.S. senator, refiled charges in late December against Ferrer and two other executives. They were charged with 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. They also are charged with 26 counts of money laundering.