Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking: Excerpt From Subcommittee Investigation Report
We believe this report, generated as a result of U.S. Senate committee investigations into sex trafficking on Backpage.com, is vitally important. Please read this Executive Summary, and the full report, to learn more about why Backpage.com is a top mainstream facilitator of sex trafficking.
BACKPAGE.COM’S KNOWING FACILITATION OF ONLINE SEX TRAFFICKING
United States Senate PERMANENT SUBCOMMITTEE ON INVESTIGATIONS Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
For more than twenty months, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has investigated the problem of online sex trafficking. The investigation led the Subcommittee to focus on Backpage.com, the leading online marketplace for commercial sex. Operating in 97 countries and 943 locations worldwide—and last valued at more than a half-billion dollars—Backpage is the world’s second-largest classified advertising website. Backpage is involved in 73% of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives from the general public (excluding reports by Backpage itself). The National Association of Attorneys General has aptly described Backpage as a “hub” of “human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors.”
Backpage does not deny that its site is used for criminal activity, including the sale of children for sex. Instead the company has long claimed that it is a mere host of content created by others and therefore immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Backpage executives have also repeatedly touted their process for screening adult advertisements as an industry-leading effort to protect against criminal abuse. Since June 2015, the Subcommittee has sought information from Backpage—first through a voluntary request, then by subpoena—about those screening measures. Backpage refused to comply, and the Subcommittee was forced to initiate the first civil contempt action authorized by the Senate in more than twenty years. In August 2016, the Subcommittee prevailed and secured a federal court order compelling Backpage to produce the subpoenaed documents.
The internal company documents obtained by the Subcommittee conclusively show that Backpage’s public defense is a fiction. Backpage has maintained a practice of altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality, including child sex trafficking. Backpage has avoided revealing this information. On July 28, 2011, for example, Backpage co-founder James Larkin cautioned Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer against publicizing Backpage’s moderation practices, explaining that “[w]e need to stay away from the very idea of ‘editing’ the posts, as you know.” Backpage had good reason to conceal its editing practices: Those practices served to sanitize the content of innumerable advertisements for illegal transactions—even as Backpage represented to the public and the courts that it merely hosted content others had created.
This report contains three principal findings.
First, Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its “adult” ads. As early as 2006, Backpage executives began instructing staff responsible for screening ads (known as “moderators”) to edit the text of adult ads to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction. By October 2010, Backpage executives formalized a process of both manual and automated deletion of incriminating words and phrases, primarily through a feature called the “Strip Term From Ad Filter.” At the direction of CEO Carl Ferrer, the company programmed this electronic filter to “strip”—that is, delete—hundreds of words indicative of sex trafficking (including child sex trafficking) or prostitution from ads before their publication. The terms that Backpage has automatically deleted from ads before publication include “lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” “young,” “amber alert,” “little girl,” “teen,” “fresh,” “innocent,” and “school girl.” When a user submitted an adult ad containing one of these “stripped” words, Backpage’s Strip Term From Ad filter would immediately delete the discrete word and the remainder of the ad would be published. While the Strip Term From Ad filter changed nothing about the true nature of the advertised transaction or the real age of the person being sold for sex, thanks to the filter, Backpage’s adult ads looked “cleaner than ever.” Manual editing entailed the deletion of language similar to the words and phrases that the Strip Term From Ad filter automatically deleted—including terms indicative of criminality.
By Backpage’s own internal estimate, by late-2010, the company was editing “70 to 80% of ads” in the adult section either manually or automatically.4 It is unclear whether and to what extent Backpage still uses the Strip Term From Ad filter, but internal company emails indicate that the company used the filter to some extent as of April 25, 2014. Manual editing appears to have largely ended in late 2012.
Over time, Backpage reprogrammed its electronic filters to reject an ad in its entirety if it contained certain egregious words suggestive of sex trafficking. But the company implemented this change by coaching its customers on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions. When a user attempted to post an ad with a forbidden word, the user would receive an error message identifying the problematic word choice to “help” the user, as Ferrer put it.5 For example, in 2012, a user advertising sex with a “teen” would get the error message: “Sorry, ‘teen’ is a banned term.” Through simply redrafting the ad, the user would be permitted to post a sanitized version. Documents from as recently as 2014 confirm the continued use of 3 App. 000157. 4 App. 000133. 5 App. 000328. 6 App. 000801-35. (Forbidden Term List attachment and accompanying email of the same date). these error messages. Backpage employed a similarly helpful error message in its “age verification” process for adult ads. In October 2011, Ferrer directed his technology consultant to create an error message when a user supplied an age under 18. He stated that, “An error could pop up on the page: ‘Oops! Sorry, the ad poster must be over 18 years of age.’”8 With a quick adjustment to the poster’s putative age, the ad would post.
Second, Backpage knows that it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking. In addition to the evidence of systematic editing described above, additional evidence shows that Backpage is aware that its website facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking. Backpage moderators told the Subcommittee that everyone at the company knew the adult-section ads were for prostitution and that their job was to “put lipstick on a pig” by sanitizing them. Backpage also knows that advertisers use its site extensively for child sex trafficking, but the company has often refused to act swiftly in response to complaints about particular underage users—preferring in some cases to interpret these complaints as the tactics of a competing escort. Backpage may also have tried to manipulate the number of child-exploitation reports it forwards to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Third, despite the reported sale of Backpage to an undisclosed foreign company in 2014, the true beneficial owners of the company are James Larkin, Michael Lacey, and Carl Ferrer. Acting through a complex chain of domestic and international shell companies, Lacey and Larkin lent Ferrer over $600 million to purchase Backpage from them. But as a result of this deal, Lacey and Larkin retain significant financial and operational control, hold almost complete debt equity in the company, and still receive large distributions of company profits. According to the consultant that structured the deal, moreover, this transaction appears to provide no tax benefits. Instead, it serves only to obscure Ferrer’s U.S.-based ownership and conceal Lacey and Larkin’s continued beneficial ownership.