A day after Backpage.com abruptly shut down its “adult” advertisement sections amid allegations it helped facilitate the sex trafficking of children, the company’s executives faced harsh scrutiny by a US Senate committee that accused the site of electronically editing ads to cover up illegal sexual activity.
Citing a report released in conjunction with the hearing, senators condemned the company for “knowingly conceal[ing] evidence of criminality by systematically editing its ‘adult’ ads,” deleting certain words and phrases so as not to trigger the attention of law enforcement.
Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said that while the company pledged it was working to identify victims of child sex trafficking, its filtering system demonstrated that it was, in fact, helping to perpetuate the sale and abuse of minors.
“Those children were still sold; they just tried to sanitize it,” McCaskill said. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of evil.”
The Senate’s lashing is the latest in a string of setbacks for Backpage, one of the country’s largest online hubs for prostitution, which has faced both civil and criminal charges in multiple states, including Massachusetts.
According to the Senate report, from 2010 through at least April 2014, the company used a “Strip Term From Ad Filter” that would pre-screen ads for words that might indicate that child trafficking could be taking place. Words such as “young,” “teen,” “lolita,” “rape,” and the phrase “Amber Alert,” which implied a young girl was available for sex, were routinely deleted from ads before they were published as a way to deter law enforcement from flagging the postings.
In some cases, the report showed, the moderators that were hired to monitor the site for illicit activity had contacted prostitutes advertised there and used their services.
Shortly after the Senate report was issued Monday night, Backpage shut down its adult ads and issued a statement saying it faced governmental censorship. The links in the adult section were redirected to landing pages that prominently featured “Censored” labels.
“Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it,” the site’s cofounders, James Larkin and Michael Lacey, said in a statement Monday. “The shut-down of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future.”
In the statement, Backpage also said it would sue the attorney general’s office in California, where its executives are currently facing criminal charges for pimping and money laundering.
The company has contended with a gauntlet of charges on several fronts over the last two years in both the courts and Congress.
At issue in most is whether Backpage, as a website, is responsible for the content published on its site. The federal Communications Decency Act holds that a website is not liable for content published on its pages. Backpage executives argue that the site acted merely a host, and the company has routinely used the law to have cases against it thrown out in court.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court announced that it would not take up the case against Backpage brought by three trafficking victims from Massachusetts who had been repeatedly sold on the site as minors, when they were as young as 15. The Boston law firm Ropes & Gray had represented the young women and their parents in the case as it worked its way through the courts.
Internet advocacy groups saw the decision to shut down the adult ads section of the site as a blow to free speech.
“This is an important reminder that our online freedoms remain under threat,” Nuala O’Connor, president and chief executive of the Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a statement on Tuesday. “While the fundamental legal framework protecting free speech remains strong, too often we see government officials attempt to circumvent these protections to achieve their censorship goals.”
Larkin and Lacey first created Backpage.com to serve as an online classified section for the New Times Media company, a collection of alternative weekly newspapers that would eventually grow to acquire the Village Voice. The site, which was launched in part to compete with Craigslist, become a hub for online sex ads after Craigslist succumbed to pressure to shut down its adult listings in 2010.
Public scrutiny about trafficking concerns eventually led Larkin and Lacey to spin Backpage off from its newspaper business in 2012 (the two stayed on as executives of Backpage). In public statements, the pair have consistently said that the First Amendment rights that they received as publishers of the newspapers also extended to the online publication of classified ads.
In 2014, the company announced that it had been bought by a Dutch conglomerate. In the Senate report released Monday, it was revealed that in fact, that Larkin and Lacey had loaned Backpage chief executive Carl Ferrer about $600 million to purchase Backpage through a foreign shell company, and continue to profit from the company.
“Backpage is $600 million company built on selling sex, and importantly on selling sex with children,” Senator McCaskill said during Monday’s hearing. “And the company knows it.”
The Senate committee had subpoenaed Lacey, Larkin, Ferrer to appear at two previous hearings, but the executives had failed to comply.
At Tuesday morning’s hearing, Lacey, Larkin, and Ferrer were all present, as was their attorney. They invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to all of the questions asked by the Senate panel.
Without testimony, the Senators took the opportunity to condemn the company, citing the findings in their report.
Republican Senator Rob Portman said the report “conclusively shows that Backpage has been more deeply complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone imagined.”
“Backpage has not denied a word of these findings,” Portman added. “Instead, several hours after the report was issued yesterday afternoon, the company announced the closure of its adult section — claiming ‘censorship.’ But that’s not censorship. That’s validation of our findings.”Janelle Nanos can be reached at Janelle.Nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.