‘They did not turn away ads selling children—they just tried to make it less obvious’ - McCaskill Challenges Backpage CEO & Senior Leadership for Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking

CEO Carl Ferrer, senior leadership plead Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination & refuse to answer questions on company practices that led to sex trafficking of children on the internet— Company shut down sections of site hours after McCaskill & Portman’s investigative report went public

WASHINGTON – Revealing that “they did not turn away ads selling children—they just tried to make it less obvious,” U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill today directly challenged the CEO and senior leadership of Backpage—who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions—at a bipartisan hearing to examine the company’s knowing facilitation of online sex trafficking, including of children, and a stunning report undermining the company’s central immunity defense as just a platform without an active role in ad postings.

Click HERE for more photos from today’s hearing.

“[Backpage] did not turn away ads selling children,” said McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor. “We now know as a result of our legal battle, based on their own documents, they did not turn away ads selling children. They just tried to make it less obvious. And worse, coached the traffickers and the pimps on how to clean up their ads. Not turning away their business. Those children were still sold. They just tried to sanitize it. That, ladies and gentleman, is the definition of evil. Simply evil.”

Last night, in response to the Subcommittee’s report, Backpage shut down the adult sections of its website across the United States effective immediately.

In response to questions from McCaskill and Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the Ranking Member and Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, General Counsel Elizabeth McDougall, Chief Operations Officer Andrew Padilla, and company co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, all invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer.

McCaskill continued: “Throughout this investigation, I have spoken of a 15-year-old girl who was sold for sex on Backpage across the United States before seeking help at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis…These experiences remind us that this investigation is not about curbing the First Amendment rights, give me a break—rights which are more important now than ever—or using the powers of the Subcommittee to target private actors engaged in unpopular conduct.  This investigation is about understanding how criminals systematically use online platforms to transform normal American teenagers into sex slaves… Our responsibility, as elected representatives, to protect the most vulnerable Americans requires nothing less.”

The Senators also heard testimony from several victims of Backpage’s practices, including a mother from St. Louis who found her missing 14-year-old daughter after a desperate search through the escort section on Backpage’s website. The mother, Kubiiki Pride, contacted Backpage to demand her daugher’s ad be removed, but received no immediate response from the company.

McCaskill and Portman also released a report in conjunction with the hearing, which found Backpage knowingly facilitated sex trafficking, including of children, on the internet. The Senators’ report is the culmination of a two-year investigation examining more than one million pages of documents. Legal cases previously brought against Backpage were dismissed because the company claimed immunity as “just a platform” that doesn’t take an active role in online ad postings. A sample of the report’s findings include:

  • 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 "young."
  • Backpage coached its users on how to post "clean ads" for illegal transactions: At Ferrer's instructions, when a user attempted to post ads with even the most egregious banned words, the user would receive an error message identifying the problemative 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."

For the last two years, McCaskill and Portman have led an investigation into online sex trafficking facilitated by Backpage, resulting in a unanimous Senate vote to enforce the Subcommittee’s subpoena and a federal court order compelling Backpage to turn over responsive documents.

The Subcommittee began its bipartisan investigation of human trafficking on the internet in April 2015. With estimated annual revenues of more than $150 million, Backpage is a market leader in commercial sex advertising and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children.

Visit mccaskill.senate.gov/backpage to see more about McCaskill’s bipartisan investigation.