For more than twenty months, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has investigated the problem of online sex trafficking. The investigation led the Subcommittee to focus on Backpage.com, the leading online marketplace for commercial sex. Operating in 97 countries and 943 locations worldwide—and last valued at more than a half-billion dollars—Backpage is the world’s second-largest classified advertising website. Backpage is involved in 73% of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives from the general public (excluding reports by Backpage itself). The National Association of Attorneys General has aptly described Backpage as a “hub” of “human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors.”
Backpage does not deny that its site is used for criminal activity, including the sale of children for sex. Instead the company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Backpage executives have also repeatedly touted their process for screening adult advertisements as an industry-leading effort to protect against criminal abuse. Since June 2015, the Subcommittee has sought information from Backpage—first through a voluntary request, then by subpoena—about those screening measures. Backpage refused to comply, and the Subcommittee was forced to initiate the first civil contempt action authorized by the Senate in more than twenty years. In August 2016, the Subcommittee prevailed
and secured a federal court order compelling Backpage to produce the subpoenaed documents.
The internal company documents obtained by the Subcommittee conclusively show that Backpage’s public defense is a fiction. Backpage has maintained a practice of altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality, including child sex trafficking. Backpage has avoided revealing this information. On July 28, 2011, for example, Backpage co-founder James Larkin cautioned Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer against publicizing Backpage’s moderation practices, explaining that “[w]e need to stay away from the very idea of ‘editing’ the posts, as you know.” 2 Backpage had good reason to conceal its editing practices: 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.
This report details three principle findings.