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July 26, 2017

Backpage.com: Classifieds Website or Human Trafficker?

By Rachel Risoleo

A company that has long evaded legal accusations of facilitating sex trafficking might finally be held accountable for its role in the trafficking industry.

In an unrelated probe to prove that intellectual property was being stolen, the U.S. company CoStar stumbled across evidence showing that Backpage.com was using a contractor to seek and edit sexually explicit ads to later post on their site. Among these ads many featured child sex trafficking victims.

The implicated documents shed new light on investigations into the classified advertising website, which has been the subject of a 20 month-long Senate investigation amid other legal woes.

Earlier this year, a Senate subcommittee investigation into the website found Backpage to be complicit in the facilitation of online sex trafficking.  According to the subcommittee, Backpage knowingly posted advertisements for child sex trafficking victims. Moreover, the subcommittee found that Backpage deliberately altered these advertisements so that they would avoid criminality. The subcommittee argued that in doing so, Backpage is actually accountable for the illegal transactions.

Backpage executives Carl Ferrer, James Larkin, and Andrew Padilla have maintained their innocence. They have claimed that they did not alter advertisements and that they are protected under section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which grants immunity to online service providers for content provided by third parties.

Backpage’s CDA defense has held up in multiple civil and criminal lawsuits, including an outstanding civil lawsuit in Washington state. However, the new materials showing that Avion, Backpage’s contractor, was seeking and promoting sexual ads on behalf of Backpage could destroy the company’s case.

During the Senate investigation, Backpage said that it uses an automated program to remove key words such as “teenage” and “rape” from ads, leaving the remaining ads online. But the newly discovered documents reveal that Backpage in fact uses Avion to manually sift through ads, and will even republish automatically deleted ads after editing out incriminating content.

An article published by The Washington Post explains the importance of these documents in the legal fight to hold Backpage accountable for facilitating child sex trafficking. In short, Backpage’s role in its ad posting is demonstratively anything but passive, and a clear violation of section 230.

The documentary “I am Jane Doe” has also helped bring Backpage’s role in child sex trafficking into the spotlight. Released in February 2017 and currently available on Netflix, “I Am Jane Doe” chronicles the struggle for justice facing American mothers whose children were trafficked using ads posted on Backpage. The film documents the outstanding civil lawsuits victims are pursuing in Washington state. It also features Backpage’s general counsel, Liz McDougall.

This documentary and other media depictions of modern slavery are important tools for raising awareness and bankrupting the industry made profitable by businesses like Backpage.

Unfortunately, even in the wake of new evidence and countless legal pursuits, Backpage continues to profit from the sex trafficking industry. More than 93 percent of Backpage’s revenue came from the adult section in 2011.

The fight to end child sex trafficking is far from over.  Congress must continue to investigate Backpage’s integral role in perpetuating this industry.