Humans For Sale...
“Four months ago, a 15-year-old girl walked into Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, and asked for help. Along with four other girls between the ages of 12 and 18, she had been sold for sex at truck stops across Missouri, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico for almost two months. She was lucky to be alive. According to her police report, another girl traveling with her during those months had died in her arms. The 15-year-old girl who walked into Cardinal Glennon, like the majority of children who are sold for sex in the United States today, was trafficked using Backpage.”
This was the story Claire shared to a packed hearing room on November 19, 2015, just months after launching a bipartisan investigation with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio into the business of online sex trafficking.
Their investigation brought them to Backpage.com, a market leader in commercial sex advertising that has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children. Despite overwhelming evidence from law enforcement and victim advocates, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and a legal subpoena from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Backpage's CEO Carl Ferrer refused to appear.
Undeterred, Claire and Senator Portman led the Senate in an historic 96-0 vote to hold Backpage in contempt of Congress, an act that hadn't occured in more than 20 years. On September 16, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the subpoena, forcing Backpage to hand over documents detailing their business practices.
The results were chilling. On January 10, 2017, after Ferrer was arrested on charges of sex trafficking and pimping, Claire and Senator Portman released their findings at a hearing titled, Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking.
Learn more about Backpage's intentional faciliation of online sex trafficking and READ THE REPORT:
- Backpage automatically deleted incriminating words from sex ads prior to publication: These words included: lolita, teenage, rape, young, amber alert, fresh, innocent, and school girl. When a user would submit an adult-section ad using one or more of these words, Backpage would automatically delete the word and then post the remainder of the ad. Over time, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer personally directed or approved the addition of new words to the filter, including terms taken directly from reports on Backpage-related sex trafficking.
- Backpage altered the evidenciary value of the original ads: According to Backpage's own Chief Operations Officer, the filter was created in such a way that Backpage "wouldn't run the risk of caching stripped terms," potentially destroying criminal evidence. No communications were found in Backpage's files to suggest that law enforcement was ever informed that ads for sex trafficking and prostitution were being routinely edited by the company.
- Backpage moderators manually deleted incriminating evidence in ads that automatic filters missed: Manual editing would target words and phrases similar to those flagged in the filter, including terms that indicated criminal activity. While most of the terms that Backpage moderators would remove related to standard prostitution, some words specifically indicated child exploitation, such as "teen" and "yung."
- Backpage coached its users on how to post "clean ads" for illegal transations: At Ferrer's instruction, when a user attempted to post ads with even the most egregious banned words, the user would receive an error message identifying the problematic word choice. The site also used a similar approach for its age verification process. A contractor that helped create one of these error messages said, "Backpage executives recognized that their filter would alert users to the use of a banned word and cause them to alter their future word choice, thereby resulting in a clean ad."
- Backpage employees are aware that prostitution and child exploitation occur on the site, and may have intentionally underreported instances of child exploitation: One former moderator asserted that all Backpage employees involved in adult moderation knew that the ads they reviewed were offering sex for money, and that some even used the services of prostitutes on the site. They "went through the motions putting lipstick on a pig, because when it came down to it, it was what the business was about."
In 2011, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children paid Backpage $3,000 to host ads for eight underage girls, including one 13-year-old girl who was advertised in hundreds of cities across the United States. According to NCMEC, the 13-year-old's post went live instantly and their staff received over 20 calls within seven minutes of posting.
Despite evidence of child exploitation on the site, Backpage often chose to err against reporting this activity to NCMEC or law enforcement, and may have even purposefully underreported such cases. In one e-mail, a Backpage supervisor specifically instructed moderation staff not to delete "young ads [...] unless they are clearly a child." In another e-mail, the company's Chief Operations Officer wrote, "if we don't want to blow past 500 [reports] this month, we shouldn't be doing more than 16 a day. [W]e can't ignore the ones that seem like trouble but if we start counting now it might help us on the ones where we're being liberal with moderator reports."
- READ THE REPORT: Backpage.com's Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking