Backpage Loses Battle with Senate Committee

The Subcommittee Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations began its bipartisan investigation of human trafficking on the Internet in April 2015. The Subcommittee explains that

With estimated annual revenues of more than $150 million, Backpage is a market leader in commercial sex advertising and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children.

The Subcommittee sought the following documents from

  • Any documents concerning Backpage’s reviewing, blocking, deleting, editing, or modifying advertisements in Adult Sections, either by Backpage personnel or by automated software processes, including but not limited to policies, manuals, memoranda, and guidelines.
  • Any documents concerning advertising posting limitations, including but not limited to the “Banned Terms List,” the “Grey List,” and error messages, prompts, or other messages conveyed to users during the advertisement drafting or creation process.
  • Any documents concerning reviewing, verifying, blocking, deleting, disabling, or flagging user accounts or user account information, including but not limited to the verification of name, age, phone number, payment information, email address, photo, and IP address. This request does not include the personally identifying information of any Backpage user or account holder.

After Backpage refused to comply with a subpoena issued by Committee Chairman Rob Portman and Ranking Minority Member Claire McCaskill, the Senate passed a civil contempt resolution by a vote of 96-0 to authorize a lawsuit against Backpage.

On August 5, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ordered Backpage and its CEO, Carl Ferrer.Ferrer to comply with the subpoena and hand over documents within 10 days.  Judge Collyer’s opinion called Backpage’s refusal to comply with a congressional subpoena “untenable and without legal support,” and concluded that “[u]nderstanding the magnitude of Internet sex trafficking and how to stop it substantially outweighs Mr. Ferrer’s undefined interests.”

Backpage sought a stay from the Court of Appeals without avail but Chief Justice Roberts granted a stay on September 6, 2016.  This week, the Supreme Court lifted the stay as it denied Backpage’s appeal.  Subcommittee Chairman Portman (R-OH) welcomed the ruling.

Today’s decision is a major victory in our efforts to protect women and children from the evils of online sex trafficking.  Instead of working with us to help protect the innocent victims of sex trafficking all across the United States, Backpage has instead fought our efforts at every step of the way while the problem of online sex trafficking gets worse, not better.  We look forward to reviewing the subpoenaed documents that Backpage has unlawfully tried, for 11 months, to withhold from Congress.


Below is the Subcommittee’s staff report on its investigation and subpoena demand to Backpage.