An online classified ad service shut down its adult content in the U.S. after a damning investigative report on the eve of a Senate hearing.
Backpage.com is accused of facilitating sex trafficking and child prostitution.
But the company says it is only a host for content created by others. It posted an announcement Monday evening saying its action to shut down its adult services was the forced result of “unconstitutional government censorship.”
On the Kansas City page of the site, all eight categories of adult services were labeled “censored” in red letters.
The developments follow a two-year investigation, pushed by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Investigations matter,” McCaskill tweeted Tuesday. She and Portman said shutting down the adult content was not censorship but a validation of the committee’s findings.
Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and other company officials appeared before the committee at a hearing Tuesday but invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions.
According to the committee report, fueled by internal company documents obtained by subpoena after a legal battle, Backpage filtered out incriminating words from its adult services ads such as “rape,” “teenage” and “school girl.” Such action would deprive Backpage from immunity provided by the Communications Decency Act to publish third-party content.
“They did not turn away ads selling children, they just tried to make it less obvious,” McCaskill said at the hearing. “And worse, (they) coached the traffickers and the pimps on how to clean up their ads. Not turning away their business. Those children were still sold. They just tried to sanitize it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of evil. Simply evil.”
The company countered that it is actually an important investigative tool for law enforcement to locate missing children and to go after those who prostitute them. Backpage vowed to continue to fight for its rights in court.
“For years, the legal system protecting freedom of speech prevailed,” its announcement said, “but new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”
Backpage operates in 97 countries and is valued at more than $500 million, according to the Senate report. The National Association of Attorneys General has described the site as a hub of “human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors.”