Backpage Closes Adult Ads After Senate Report, But Scores Win in Supreme Court

Senate Committee Releases Report Condemning Backpage

Last week, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing to discuss the findings of its report titled “’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.”  The report found that:

  • Backpage knowingly covered up evidence of criminal activity by systematically editing its so-called adult ads.
  • Backpage knows that it facilitates prostitution and even child sex trafficking.
  • Despite the reported sale of Backpage to an undisclosed foreign company in 2014, taking them outside of the U.S., the true owners of the company are the founders, James Larkin and Michael Lacey and Carl Ferrer, their CEO.

The report was the culmination of a lengthy battle with Backpage that included the Committee obtaining unanimous consent from the Senate to pursue contempt proceedings for failing to comply with the Committee’s subpoena and Backpage unsuccessfully fighting the subpoena all the way to the Supreme Court   (See Backpage Loses Battle with Senate Committee.)

The full report is available at the bottom of this post.

Backpage Cries Censorship in Shutting Down Adult Ads

Backpage representatives refused to testify at the hearing but it did shut down its adult advertising in response to the report.**  In a statement, Backpage stated

The decision of today to remove its Adult section in the United States will no doubt be heralded as a victory by those seeking to shutter the site, but it should be understood for what it is: an accumulation of acts of government censorship using extra-legal tactics. Like the decision by Craigslist to remove its adult category in 2010, this announcement is the culmination of years of effort by government at various levels to exert pressure on and to make it too costly to continue.

Committee Chairman Rob Portman and Ranking Minority Member Claire McCaskill responded to Backpage’s action by noting:

We reported the evidence that Backpage has been far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew.  ackpage’s response wasn’t to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site. That’s not ‘censorship’ — it’s validation of our findings.

The Backpage statement added that they would continue to fight for online freedom of speech and were hopeful that they would be vindicated.

We are confident that the courts ultimately will find, as the Supreme Court did after the abuses of the McCarthy era by this same subcommittee, that “[i]nvestigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to ‘punish’ those investigated are indefensible.” Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 187 (1957).

The Center for Democracy and Techology agreed with Backpage and criticized the Senate investigation.

The tactics used against sites like Backpage and Craigslist threaten speech far beyond what’s posted on online classified ad sites.  When government officials move beyond the bully pulpit and conduct persistent pressure campaigns to achieve a result repeatedly denied to them in court, we’re in the territory of unaccountable government censorship that is anathema to First Amendment values. With government actors at the highest level publicly threatening and bullying journalists and activists, the risks of unchecked extralegal censorship are all too clear.

**Despite shuttering their “adult” ads, it appears that the ads have simply migrated to the massage category.  Below is a sample from Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Seattle.


A Win At the Supreme Court

That very same day, the Supreme Court gave Backpage a sign of hope as it refused to consider an appeal of a First Circuit decision in Doe v, LLC dismissing a claim by victims of sex trafficking against the site on the basis that Backpage had immunity for third-party ads under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).  CDA 230 immunity was the very same reason a California court recently dismissed the initial criminal complaint filed against Backpage’s officers, before Attorney General Harris filed an expanded amended complaint.