Online ads site Backpage.com has shut down all its adult categories claiming US government censorship.
The decision was made the same day as a highly critical Congressional report [PDF] into the company and just hours before a Congressional hearing that lambasted it for profiting from child sex trafficking.
According to the report, Backpage is by far the largest website in terms of ads for prostitution, both adult and child: more than three-quarters of complaints about online child sex trafficking concern Backpage, according to quasi-governmental agency NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).
The company also receives the bulk of online advertising for prostitution, said Congressman Rob Portman (R-OH), chair of the subcommittee on investigations: 8 out of every 10 dollars. He ascribed those profits as the reason that Backpage continued to allow ads clearly describing illegal activity on its site.
Portman also quoted an organization that tackles child sex trafficking as saying that between 80 and 100 per cent of the children it is aiding have been advertised on Backpage.
Although the report is fierce in its condemnation, the reality is less clear thanks to First Amendment issues and efforts that the company has put in place to limit or restrict ads for illegal activities.
In essence, the Congressional committee claims that Backpage is hiding behind free speech issues and has devised its systems to give the appearance of acting against such ads, while doing as much as it can to retain their business.
The report's extensive appendix [58MB PDF] supplies evidence both for and against those accusations. Internal emails show that the company is not adopting policies or processes that shut out or heavily discourage such ads, but at the same time it does show a determined effort to remove illegal ads.
When a similar outcry against Craigslist forced the classified ads site to shut down its adult section, Backpage executives emailed one another that same day, talking excitedly about the "opportunity" that now existed. In the same email however, its CEO stressed that the company would have to "make sure our content is not illegal."
What is undeniable is that Backpage has fiercely defended its business model against an aggressive and occasionally grandstanding set of senators. It fought a subpoena all the way up to the Supreme Court to prevent handing over internal documents. And its executives famously refused to attend an earlier Congressional hearing – a decision that resulted in CEO Carl Ferrer receiving the first contempt of Congress charge in 20 years. He was later arrested on sex trafficking charges as just part of what he sees as a campaign of intimidation.
However it is hard to feel much compassion for executives who know without a shadow of a doubt that their website is being used to sell children for sex but who respond by working to the absolute limits of the law: removing ad terms rather than verifying email addresses; asking people to resubmit ads without specific words rather than inform them that their business is not desired; taking anonymous posters' claims on trust rather than investigating them.
At every step, Backpage has relied [PDF] on the letter of the law to defend its actions, which include the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
The senators were not impressed. Rob Portman was dismissive of the claim made by Backpage that its adult section has been shut down by government censorship. "That's not censorship, that's validation of the conclusions of the report," he told the hearing.
Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-MO) noted that Backpage – as well as others including the EFF and CDT – claimed the pressure went against the First Amendment. "Give me a break," she said. "This isn't about free speech, this is about how criminals use an online platform to turn normal American teenagers into sex slaves."
What was difficult to stomach, however, was the self-aggrandizing and moralistic stances and speeches by the committee members who soon lost track of why the laws were written as they are and talked almost exclusively about child sex trafficking, applauding themselves for having fought Backpage's legal defense.
While Backpage has adopted a morally dubious position, it is nonetheless not breaking the law and while it has currently shut down its adult categories, it could just as easily reopen them next week. McCaskill noted as much when she said she hoped the shutdown was not "just a cheap publicity stunt." ®