Senate holds Backpage in contempt in child trafficking probe

Authorities are investigating Backpage over accusations that it runs child sex-trafficking ads.

The Senate has unanimously voted (96-0) to hold Backpage, a classified ads website, in contempt of Congress. See, Homeland Security's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued subpoenas last year, asking Backpage for extensive documentation on how it screens the ads people post. The company, however, only shared general documents that didn't contain the information the subcommittee needed. Lawmakers are investigating the website due to allegations that it allows child sex-trafficking ads to go through. Further, lawmakers say its screening practices even help traffickers avoid prosecution by editing ads and using buzz terms like "fresh" to indicate underage prostitutes.

Backpage is known for allowing ads that offer adult services, and it became especially popular when Craigslist started banning them. Authorities believe it now earns $150 million in revenue every year. The company told investigators that it hires overseas contractors to screen advertisements. But Sen. Rob Portman (one of the people leading the investigation) revealed in Senate that it once ran a sex ad featuring a topless minor while it was also running an ad featuring a missing poster of the same child. "We'd certainly like to know what supposedly market-leading screening and moderation procedures missed that one," he quipped.

Now that the website is held in contempt, the Senate's lawyers can file a federal lawsuit that would force it to comply with the subpoena. Backpage's lawyer, Elizabeth McDougall, says the company has been waiting (even requesting) the subcommittee to take the issue to court for a long time, though. The website's defense is that it can post ads under the First Amendment's right to free speech and that the law protects websites that post third-party content. By going to court, the company will have the platform to fight for itself.

McDougall issued this statement before the voting began:

"For nine months, has respectfully, and repeatedly, asked the Senate to take the steps necessary to permit to obtain a review of the constitutional issues by judges, rather than by the same political figures who issued the subpoenas

If the Senate now votes, as has long requested, to submit the issue to the courts, it will finally be authorizing the precise course of action the company has been urging for nine months. looks forward to a proper consideration of the important First Amendment constitutional issues by the judiciary—the branch of government charged with protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans."

It's worth noting that the Senate doesn't usually issue contempt charges. The last time it held an entity in contempt was back in 1995, when authorities were investigating then-President Bill Clinton's activities related to the Whitewater Development Corporation.