The CEO of a company whose website is believed to be one of the leading sexual traffickers of children in the United States was a no-show at a congressional hearing Thursday, a move Sen. Rob Portman called a “clear act of contempt.”
In a dramatic scene in a hearing room on Capitol Hill, Portman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations, said Carl Ferrer, CEO of Backpage.com, has refused to appear before the committee despite a subpoena and plenty of notice.
Lawyers for Ferrer told the subcommittee he would not attend the hearing because he was on international travel.
Portman, R-Ohio, said while Ferrer had the right to plead the 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself, he had no right to not show up. “This is truly extraordinary,” he said.
After the hearing, he said the subcommittee plans to hold Ferrer in either civil or criminal contempt — something that he said the Senate has not done in some 20 years.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has repeatedly sought information from Backpage.com, including how it moderates ads, whether it takes down ads that are obviously selling a minor for sex and whether it edits ads to allow those selling minors for sex in order to evade law enforcement.
But the company, citing its First Amendment rights, has repeatedly refused the subcommittee’s requests for information, an argument that Portman says has no support “in law or logic.”
“They’re saying they’re not even going to bother to search for it,” said Portman, who called the information vital. “We need to find out how we can stop” sex trafficking, he said. “And in order to stop it, we’ve got to have more information.”
Portman said current research shows Backpage.com has cornered the market on online sex trafficking. According to a leading anti-trafficking organization called Shared Hope International, organizations working with child sex trafficking victims have reported that between 80 and 100 percent of their clients have been bought and sold on Backpage.com.”
The site has become so dominant that the Center for Missing and Exploited Children first goes to the web page when a child is reported missing and suspected of being linked to sex trafficking.
The company had initially proclaimed it wanted to be a critical ally against human trafficking, and touted its moderation process as a tool in fighting the sexual exploitation of children. But it stopped meeting with the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in a dispute about whether the organization would promote what Backpage’s was doing.
“It seemed they were more interested in trying to publicly claim a partnership with (the center) on the issue rather than reducing the sale of children on their website,” said Yiota Souras, the senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who said the company refused to implement many of the center’s suggestions for stopping child sex trafficking.
She said in some cases, the company refused to take down ads even when family members pleaded for them to do so. She quoted an email to the company where a mother asked that her 16-year-old daughter’s ad be taken down. “For God’s sake, she’s only 16,” the mother pleaded.
Souras said there were more restrictions on ads to sell pets or motorcycles than there were to sell sexual acts. Backpage.com, she said, has “not taken basic measures to disrupt the online marketplace of sex trafficking they have created.”
She said she has seen victims as young as 11 who are sometimes sold for sex up to 10 times a day.
Portman said 71 percent of all the child sex trafficking reports the center receives through its cyber tipline are linked to the web page.
“If Backpage thinks they are going to go quietly into the night, they are sadly mistaken,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the ranking member of the subcommittee.