Here’s how Backpage.com can help stop child sex trafficking: just cooperate


By:  Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star

The sick schemes of pedophiles are endless.

Since the beginning of time, child predators have sought ways to target, seduce and assault their victims. Most people realize that pedophiles have courted children as prey by becoming teachers, clergy, scout leaders or by leering around playgrounds.

But by far, the internet has been such criminals’ biggest gift. It’s an easily accessible, covert marketplace. Any freak with a web connection can solicit the buying and selling of juveniles as routinely as they’d search for a used car or a puppy.

And of all the advertising sites, Backpage.com has gained a reputation of being a favored haunt of such criminals, a notation regularly made by law enforcement, advocates for those who have been sex trafficked and increasingly, by members of Congress.

Tuesday, nearly a year of stalling by the company reached its legal end. Backpage must comply with a Senate investigation on child sex trafficking. It must provide the requested documents subpoenaed by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which wants to know how the company screens for such illicit activity.

In a 7-0 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay requested by Backpage. (Justice Samuel Alito recused, as his son works as counsel to Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio heading up the probe.)

Portman is linked with Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill in the effort. McCaskill’s time as Jackson County prosecutor, working sex trafficking cases, has aided her greatly in this pursuit.

In October, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer refused to show up for Senate testimony. The Senate then voted to hold the company in contempt. Have to question an executive who runs from, instead of helps with, efforts to stop something as abhorrent as selling young people for sex.

Instead, Backpage has tugged at the First Amendment for protection. In court filings, it claimed the Senate investigation was part of a “disturbing and growing trend of government actors issuing blunderbuss demands for documents to online publishers of content created by third parties (such as classified ads) in a manner that chills First Amendment rights.”

By law, Backpage is protected from the overreach they allege. Specifically, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 comes into play. Court challenges, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, successfully fought portions of the initial legislation, which had included efforts to keep children from accessing pornography online.

What stayed in place were strong First Amendment protections for the owners of websites. Subsequent court decisions have found that internet providers are not to be considered publishers and therefore are not liable for posts by third-party advertisers to their sites. A valid fear is that if this immunity is taken away, the vibrancy of the internet, First Amendment rights, will suffer.

The far narrower focus of the senators can’t be underlined enough.

Raise this topic and people quickly skew toward supporting legal consensual activity between adults. Backpage, in its adult sections, offers advertisements for escorts, body rubs, strippers, dom and fetish, transsexual escorts, male escorts, among other categories.

What McCaskill and Portman seek is information about how Backpage screens ads for clues that a child is being offered up for sex or that someone is being trafficked against one’s will. The suspicion is that they don’t. Rather, the screening is to filter out red flags that might alert law enforcement, so the ads can more subtly clue that the merchandise is under-age. The senators want to find best practices for keeping criminals from using the sites.

This isn’t a congressional witch hunt. Backpage is not being subjected to irrational or McCarthy-like scrutiny. Despite their pleas to the contrary, the company is not facing a church lady bid, with the senators forcing their own sense of morality. The buying and selling of children, criminal human trafficking, is the concern. Not consensual activity among adults.

The most twisted argument that Backpage makes has the firm holding itself up as a beacon of justice. In doing so, the company admits that its site is used by child predators. It does so each time it touts working with police to stop such crime, saying that it often cooperates with investigations. So why not cooperate to curb the criminal activity?

The answer is basic. Market share, money. Business boomed, and scrutiny increased on Backpage after Craigslist stopped taking adult services ads. In 2015, major credit card companies stopped processing payments for ads on Backpage. The credit card firms made the decision at the urging of an Illinois sheriff. Backpage sued the sheriff and won at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on First Amendment grounds.

Strong societies carefully safeguard their most vulnerable. Children within the grasp of sexual predators surely deserve protection.

Yet Backpage’s owners want to claim that it’s their company, with estimated annual revenues of more than $150 million, that is the victim here.