Senate Seeks Court’s Help With Backpage.com

     (CN) – With the CEO of Backpage.com resisting its sex-trafficking probe, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations asked a federal judge to intervene.
     Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer has claimed a First Amendment right to avert the Senate’s subpoena, but the subcommittee says such objections are meritless because Ferrer has “failed to assert a privilege regarding any particular documents or even to identify, as the subpoena required, the responsive records withheld and the grounds for withholding them in a privilege log.”
     The subcommittee applied March 29 to have a federal judge in Washington enforce its subpoena, noting that the subpoena in question seeks information related to “the steps Backpage takes to review advertisements for possible illegal activity (particularly child sex trafficking), Backpage’s interaction with law enforcement, its data retention policies, and its basic corporate structure.”
     Last weeks filing comes 12 days after the Senate voted to hold Backpage in contempt , an action the Senate has not taken since 1993, the Wall Street Journal reported.
     A gruesome, 196-page report the Senate released on the classifieds website last month describes various stories of sex-trafficking victims bought and sold via Backpage ads.
     The subcommittee says the information it seeks from Ferrer is directly related to its investigation, and will “inform the Congress about the extent to which online commercial marketplaces can and do undertake actions to prevent their sites from being used for sex trafficking.”
     Ferrer has held that the First Amendment “provides a blanket protection allowing him to withhold all documents,” but the committee notes it has not requested any personal information about any Backpage users.
     “While advertising in general constitutes ‘commercial speech’ that receives First Amendment protection[, …] advertisements ‘that propose an illegal transaction’ are not protected,” the subcommittee’s 37-page memorandum to the court states.
     The subcommittee also stressed that “any possible effect on Mr. Ferrer’s or Backpage’s First Amendment rights from … the subpoena is marginal, at best; [and] any such intrusion would be outweighed by the Subcommittee’s need for the information.”
     Senate Legal Counsel Patricia Mack Bryan signed the memorandum, which seeks an order compelling Ferrer and Backpage to produce the documents requested in the subpoena.

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