- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Senate voted Thursday to cite Backpage.com, the country’s largest online classified ad marketplace for sex services, for contempt of Congress after company CEO Carl Ferrer refused to cooperate in lawmakers’ investigation into human trafficking.

The 96-0 vote marks the first time in two decades that the Senate has used its contempt powers, and the bipartisan move suggests just how fed up senators were with Backpage, which the lawmakers believe is being used to perpetuate prostitution involving women and men forced into the sex industry.

“We will send a message to others,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. “They can run, but they can’t hide.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations, led by Chairman Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, and ranking Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, has issued two subpoenas demanding documents on Backpage’s activities. Senators said the company flouted both subpoenas.

The vote directs the Senate’s attorneys to file a lawsuit to enforce the subpoena issued late last year to Mr. Ferrer.

Publicly, Backpage insists it takes steps to moderate ads. But senators said the company failed to produce the details Mr. Portman and Ms. McCaskill were seeking on how the company tried to screen out bad ads and what steps it had taken to report problems to local authorities.

Backpage said it is eager to get into court and defend itself. As an online publishing company, it said, it claims protections under the First Amendment.

“For nine months, Backpage.com has respectfully, and repeatedly, asked the Senate to take the steps necessary to permit Backpage.com to obtain a review of the constitutional issues by judges, rather than by the same political figures who issued the subpoenas,” Steve Ross, a lawyer representing the company, said in the statement.

Mr. Ross said other federal cases have ruled Backpage is entitled to First Amendment protections.

Congress and Backpage have been at war for several years, and lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at cracking down on online sex trafficking.

Backpage sued late last year to try to stop the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act from being used against the company. Backpage argued that the law was written so vaguely that it could end up ensnaring publications that do try to weed out illicit activities but inadvertently miss some postings.

Backpage said it feared zealous prosecutors might go after websites rather than the customers who run the ads.

“Criminal liability cannot constitutionally be imposed on a website merely for providing a forum for speech that some individuals misuse for sex trafficking,” the company said in its 23-page complaint. “Given the enormous volume of third-party content they receive and disseminate every day, websites cannot possibly review every post to guarantee nothing is unlawful.”

Backpage hosts online classified ad pages for more than 400 U.S. cities. The ads range from car sales and rooms for rent to an “adult” section with postings for massages, sexual fetishes and escorts.

Senators say some of those ads involve people who have been trafficked for purposes of sex, including minors.

“Sex trafficking has thrived on the Internet in part because of the high profitability and relatively low risk associated with advertising trafficking victims’ services online in multiple locations,” the Senate subcommittee said in its report urging the contempt citation. “With the aid of online advertising, traffickers can maximize profits, evade law-enforcement detection, and maintain control of victims by transporting them quickly within and between states.”

Unable to target each trafficker, senators have taken aim at Backpage and other online hosts of those kinds of ads, saying they need to make sure they are doing enough to screen out potentially illegal transactions.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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