Law enforcement, the victim advocates, the women they represent, and especially the nuns.
The nuns are the best. Sisters of Mercy are among the greatest helpers of women lured into the sex trade online, with a special concern for trafficked minors.
All are appreciative that Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri continues to press Backpage.com on its practices, questioning the diligence of the online classified service to keep from being used by sex traffickers.
Never miss a local story.
And they all held the same view: Backpage.com is one of the top ways that troubled young women are lured into prostitution. The other is pornography.
“A primary hunting page” is how one advocate called Backpage.com at a gathering Tuesday evening in Kansas City, a celebration for the work of the Justice Project, which helps sexually exploited women.
Another advocate said she goes to Backpage.com daily, looking for girls who are estranged from their families, suffering mental illness and drug addiction, living on the streets and often under control of a pimp.
That’s not exactly how Backpage sees itself. The Dallas-based company has been pressing against congressional investigators looking into the Internet sex trade for nearly a year.
On Wednesday, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee voted 15-0 to move forward with holding Backpage.com in civil contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena to testify before the Senate subcommittee. The full Senate still needs to vote on the matter. But it will likely approve it.
If so, this will be the first time in 20 years that the Senate has used the process to force compliance with an investigation.
The reply of Backpage.com was telling. Bring it on, was the tone of statements released to the St. Louis-Post Dispatch.
This is a legal showdown the site welcomes. It wants a test of how far it can stretch the First Amendment as a shield.
The business’ stand is that ads are covered by the First Amendment and that Backpage actually helps prevent trafficking because it can be a tool for investigators. Also, it’s not the company’s fault that some people misuse it for ill or illegal intent. Those are legitimate arguments, to a point.
One question the Democrat McCaskill and Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, want answered is how much does Backpage try to scrub the ads of any hint of illegal activity, throwing off law enforcement to maintain the site’s huge profit margins.
“The subcommittee’s subpoena seeks to understand whether Backpage’s current practices have the purpose or effect of removing images or text that could alert law enforcement to the nature and extent of the transaction being offered,” according to a report of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The company is valued between $618 million and $625 million, according to the report. Last fall, the site listed 431 cities in the U.S. and 444 additional cities in all regions of the world.
Backpage.com’s CEO refused to testify before the subcommittee last fall. And an attorney for the business has likened the investigative efforts of McCaskill and Portman to the McCarthy hearings. As if the website is the true victim, not the children the senators are trying to protect.
And now, the company is all but gloating that the fight will move into the courts.
Here’s what Backpage cannot argue: Law enforcement and victim advocates are adamant that the site is a problem.
Jeanne Christensen, justice advocate for human trafficking with the Sisters of Mercy, traveled from Kansas City to Omaha, Neb., on Wednesday to continue her work in training people on how to be on the lookout for women being trafficked, often via the Internet. She works regularly with hotels and law enforcement and is well aware of the ads in the adult section of Backpage.
Last year, American Express, MasterCard and Visa all stopped processing payments of Backpage, fearing the possibility of illegal transactions.
If Backpage.com was serious about preventing minors from being sexually exploited, it would cooperate with the Senate investigation. It would be forthcoming about the practices it claims to use, efforts to prevent the evil of children being trafficked for sex. It would show some concern.
But that hasn’t been the corporate response. And Wednesday, Backpage.com doubled down.