Classified ad site Backpage.com has a new problem. It's being sued by two nonprofit shelters for women and children, alleging that the site's owners know that it is being used for illegal sex trafficking but have done nothing to stop it.
The suit is based on evidence uncovered in a 20-month probe of Backpage by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation that led the online site to shut down its adult sections.
The 53-page report (available here), issued Jan. 9, found evidence that Backpage knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and underage girls and covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits.
“Backpage,” said Subcommittee Chair Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in a prepared statement, “did nothing to stop this criminal activity. They facilitated it. Knowingly.”
“[Backpage] did not turn away ads selling children,” said Ranking Member Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), 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."
"Millions in profits"
In one of the lawsuits, the Phoenix-based Sojourner Center charges that, “Defendants made millions of dollars in profits each year from websites that they designed and intended to be used, and that they knew were being used, for illegal sex trafficking, including of children.”
“Sojourner Center provides shelter, care, and support to trafficking victims, including individuals trafficked on Backpage,” the complaint states, according to Courthouse News Service.
The second suit was filed by Florida Abolitionist and an anonymous woman, Jane Doe, who says she was “raped and sold at least five times in a period of 12 hours” after she was trafficked on Backpage in March 2013.
Filed in Orlando, this complaint says Doe’s “traffickers posted her photograph and an advertisement offering her for sexual services on Backpage without Ms. Doe’s consent or authorization.”
Plaintiffs in both cases are represented by the office of David Boies, who represented Al Gore in the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election.
Defendants in both cases are Backpage owners Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin. Defendants in both cases include EvilEmpire.com and BigCity.com.
The Sojourner Shelter says in its complaint that Backpage “depends on sex trafficking to remain profitable.”
“In May 2011, Backpage’s ‘Adult Services’ section, nationwide, featured over 700,000 paid advertisements,” the Phoenix complaint says. It adds that when Backpage’s major competitor, Craigslist, took down its Adult Services page in 2009, “online sex trafficking declined by 50 percent.”
The complaint continues: “After Craiglist.org’s exit from this market, Backpage, formerly a part of the Village Voice newspaper, changed its online advertising model to concentrate on, and quickly dominate, the market for advertising victims of sex trafficking, including underage children.