Commentary

Backpage Shutters 'Adult' Listings

Backpage won a significant court battle this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revive a lawsuit by a group of teens who tried to sue the company for allegedly facilitating sex trafficking.

But the company may have lost its larger war. Late last night, on the eve of a Senate hearing, the company removed all "adult" escort ads and replaced them with a link reading "censored."

This morning, lawmakers on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations repeatedly condemned the company for allegedly facilitating sex trafficking. Sen. Bob Portman (R-Ohio) kicked off the proceeding by referencing a new Senate report that, in his opinion, "conclusively shows that Backpage has been more deeply complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone imagined."

The report concluded that Backpage's editing process -- which involved deleting words and images "suggestive of illegal conduct" from ads -- "sanitized the content of millions of advertisements and hid important evidence from law enforcement," Portman said.

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Backpage executives refused to testify at the hearing.

The Senate report also noted that Backpage's revenue spiked after Craigslist shuttered its adult listings in 2010. Backpage's gross revenue went from $29 million that year to $135 million in 2014, according to the report. That shouldn't have been a surprise, given that everyone who had considered the issue predicted that Craigslist's ads would inevitably migrate to other sites.

Portman and other lawmakers argue that Backpage's edits to users' ads deprive the company of the protections of the Communications Decency Act, which says that Web sites aren't responsible for crimes by users.

In fact, however, numerous judges have ruled that sites don't lose their protections by editing users' posts. Just last month, Judge Michael G. Bowman in Sacramento specifically rejected a claim by former Attorney General (now Senator) Kamala Harris that Backpage lost its protections by editing ads.

"Assuming that ... the ad went from expressing intent to advertise prostitution to express a desire to 'date,' the People are essentially complaining that Backpage staff scrubbed the original ad, removing any hint of illegality," Bowman wrote in a ruling dismissing criminal charges against Backpage executives. "If this was the alleged content 'manipulation,' the content was modified from being illegal to legal. Surely the AG is not seeking to hold Defendants liable for posting a legal ad."

For his part, Portman suggested today that lawmakers will explore revising the Communications Decency Act in a way to "end the facilitation of online sex trafficking" at sites like Backpage.

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