A new film tells a story none of us wants to hear. It’s an important story, but one that broke my heart when I first heard it.
“I Am Jane Doe” tells, among others, the story of Kubiiki Pride’s 14-year-old daughter who was sold for sex on the website Backpage.
Backpage knew that ads containing sexually explicit photographs of Pride’s daughter were posted on its website for several months but refused to remove them. Instead, the company demanded proof the underage girl in the pictures was, in fact, her daughter.
While Pride, her daughter and her family, who were then living in Missouri, continued the slow process of healing from a stunning trauma, Backpage continued its knowing facilitation of child sex trafficking on the internet undeterred.
Last month, my colleague Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and I released a bipartisan report detailing Backpage’s knowing complicity in online child sex trafficking — the culmination of our nearly two-year investigation and a review of more than 1 million pages of documents.
These were documents that Backpage initially refused to hand over, until compelled by our subpoenas and a historic unanimous vote by the Senate to enforce them in federal court — an action we defended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And they showed, in damning detail, the lengths Backpage leaders went to to facilitate sex trafficking of children and hide what they were doing.
In response to our investigation, Backpage announced that it has, effective immediately, shuttered the “adult” section of its website.
Years before I was elected to the Senate, I prosecuted sex crimes in the courtroom, so I know that this win against Backpage doesn’t represent a full or permanent victory against sex trafficking. But I do know that it’s real, concrete progress in protecting our kids and grandkids from this kind of nightmare.
And it’s proof of one principle that has anchored my work as your senator: Oversight matters. Investigations matter. It’s not always as obvious as passing a bill into law, but the hard slog of oversight work is sometimes even more effective.
Sometimes laws alone aren’t enough when companies like Backpage — the market leader in commercial sex advertising with more than $150 million in estimated annual revenue — can use our legal system as a shield against liability. In this case, our willingness to cross party lines and dig into a lengthy investigation has kicked down the door of the company’s central immunity defense, in which the company claimed that it was just a platform without an active role in creating the content of ads.
Quite the contrary. Our investigation found that with personal involvement from CEO Carl Ferrer, Backpage employees automatically deleted incriminating words from sex ads prior to publication, manually scrubbed incriminating evidence that its automatic filters missed and coached its users on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions. All to sanitize evidence that they were intentionally profiting from the sale of children for sex on their site.
I’m hopeful the results of our investigation will give future cases against Backpage the legal ammunition to more effectively pursue justice against the company. And we didn’t need to pass a new law to achieve it.
These bipartisan investigations have been my bread and butter since I arrived in the Senate, with the power to force change and alter laws and policy. I didn’t need to pass a new law to topple the senior leadership at Arlington National Cemetery following the disclosures of mismarked gravesites, or to fix waste and abuse by Pentagon leadership in the Army National Guard recruiting program.
So I’ll keep fighting with everything I’ve got — with the power of congressional oversight — to protect young women and men from exploitation and shine a light on corruption wherever it hides.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is a former prosecutor of sex crimes and the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee.