DALLAS (CN) – Backpage.com took down its adult classifieds section from its website Monday night, hours before its executives refused to answer questions from a Senate panel investigating pimping and child sex trafficking allegations.
Backpage pulled the adult content after the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report accusing the Dallas-based company of systematically filtering out words that would indicate the site promoted child sex trafficking.
The 53-page report is titled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.”
Backpage blamed its removal of the classified ads “as the direct result of unconstitutional government censorship.” It said it had no choice due to “new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business” with it.
“This will not end the fight for online freedom of speech,” the company said in a statement. “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.”
Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and its creators James Larkin and Michael Lacey were compelled to appear before the committee Tuesday morning and invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
“After consultation with counsel, I decline to answer your question based on the rights provided by the First and Fifth Amendments,” Ferrer testified.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was critical of Backpage’s “Strip Term From Ad Feature” that filters out words indicative of sex trafficking.
“A trafficker submits an ad on Backpage.com containing a word like ‘lolita’ or ‘teen,’ a pretty good clue that a crime may be afoot,” Portman told the silent executives. “But then Backpage’s Strip Term From Ad filter would delete the problematic term and the remainder of the ad is published. Of course, this editing changed nothing about the real age of a person being sold for sex or the real nature of the advertised transaction.”
Backpage’s shuttering of adult listings came the same day the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case of three people who claim they were trafficked for underage sex on the website.
The First Circuit in Boston affirmed dismissal of their case last year. Twenty-one state attorneys general have argued that the Communications Decency Act does not shield website operators from liability when they use language designed to attract sex offenders in advertisements.
Ferrer was arrested in Texas in October on California charges of pimping conspiracy, three counts of pimping a minor under 16 years of age, attempted pimping of a minor under 16 years of age, pimping a minor, and four counts of pimping. Backpage’s offices in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood were also raided.
A California state judge in December tossed the charges against Ferrer, concluding the Communications Decency Act shields Backpage from liability.
San Diego Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan disputed Backpage’s claims of government censorship on Tuesday, calling them “bogus,” and its website an internet brothel.
“Shutdown of their site will result in much fewer victims whose enslavement is hidden by the social media platform of Backpage,” Stephan said in a statement.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office will continue investigating Backpage until it “ceases to be a threat.”
“Profiting at the expense of countless innocent victims by allowing them to be exploited for modern-day slavery is unacceptable,” Paxton said in a statement Wednesday. “I commend the efforts of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations against Backpage to stop these types of despicable ads from causing human misery.”