Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer failed to appear in a US Congressional Hearing on November 19th. Ferrer may face contempt charges as a result. “Definance of a congressional subpoena is rare and it’s serious,” said Senator Rob Portman. Portman and Senator Claire McCaskill are leading a subcommittee investigation into Backpage’s supposed involvement in ‘sex trafficking’.
Backpage is a free classifieds ad website popular among independent sex workers and their clients. The subcommittee claims that Backpage is aiding ‘child sex trafficking’ by allowing adult ads on their website. Portman says that Backpage is, “at the center of this online black market for sex trafficking.” According to Reason, Backpage employs over 100 workers dedicated to screening adult ads. They report as many as 400 ads per month to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.
Portman is pushing for criminal charges following Ferrer’s absence at the hearing. Ferrer’s attorneys had informed the committee on Wednesday November 18th that he would be unable to attend the hearing. Ferrer was out of the country on business. Attacks by law enforcement organizations on escorting ad websites have been increasing in recent years. This year alone has seen a number of websites shut down as a result, including Rentboy.com and the escort section of Squirt. NSWP released a statement condemning the raid and arrests at Rentboy.com.
The senators are also upset at Backpage’s refusal to hand over documents. The documents are related to the Backpage’s screening process for ads. “Backpage’s top lawyer has described its moderation process as the key tool for disrupting and eventually ending human trafficking via the worldwide web,” Portman said in a statement quotes on The Hill. “But Backpage has refused to turn over documents about this key moderation process that it touts as well as other relevant aspects of its business.”
Backpage’s policies benefit sex workers by not storing identifying data or requiring validation for workers when posting ads. This type of data could potentially be used against sex workers by law enforcement. Yiota Souras from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children said these policies are examples of Backpage’s criminal behaviour at the hearing on November 19th.
Though the subcommittee is focused on all sex trafficking on the Internet, Ferrer’s refusal to appear has focused the Senators on Backpage for now, according to USA Today. It is believed civil or criminal contempt charges against Ferrer may be their next move.
This is not the first issue Backpage has run into over the past few years. The website is currently in a legal battle after an Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart convinced major credit card companies to cut ties with the site. The court ordered Sheriff Dart to cease communications with credit card companies while the case was being heard earlier this month.
The 2015 Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act also went after Backpage. They created a 10 to 15 year minimum sentence for websites found to be profiting from underage or ‘forced sex work’. Those wanting more detailed information on the status of Backpage and the congressional hearing can find the Senate staff report here.