Congress says website tries to obscure ads’ content.
By Jack Torry
Jan 9, 2017
A new U.S. Senate report charges a website dealing with commercial sex advertising edited ads aimed at child sex trafficking to conceal their true content from investigators and the public.
The report, which is the product of an 18-month investigation by a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, appears to undercut claims by the website — known as Backpage.com — that it screens advertising posts that involve illegal activities, such as child sex trafficking.
Instead, the report accuses Backpage of publishing the ads after deleting certain words or content that suggests it involves a child. The efforts serve to sanitize the ads while still allowing them to be posted on the website, according to the report.
“Backpage has maintained a practice of altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality, including child sex trafficking,” the report concluded.
“Those practices served to sanitize the content of innumerable advertisements for illegal transactions — even as Backpage represented to the public and the courts that it merely hosted content others had created.”
Staffers for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations have pored through 1.1 million pages of documents turned over by Backpage. The website only yielded the documents after federal courts upheld a Senate subpoena demanding the material.
Portman and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will hold a hearing Tuesday in which Backpage’s chief executive officer, Carl Ferrer, is scheduled to testify. In addition, the subcommittee is scheduled to hear from parents of three teenage girls who were trafficked on Backpage.
Backpage, which operates in 97 countries and has a value of more than $500 million, is one of the largest classified advertising websites in the world.
According to the report, “the terms that Backpage has automatically deleted from ads before publication” includes words such as “Lolita, little girl, teen, fresh, or school girl.” The report went on to declare “when a user submitted an adult ad containing one of these “stripped” words, Backpage’s Strip Term From Ad filter would immediately delete the discrete word and the remainder of the ad would be published.”
The report was made available to news organizations Monday.
“Backpage does not deny that its site is used for criminal activity, including the sale of children for sex,” according to the report. “Instead the company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability under” federal law.
“Backpage executives have also repeatedly touted their process for screening adult advertisements as an industry-leading effort to protect against criminal abuse,” the report concludes.