WASHINGTON, January 10, 2017 – Executives of Backpage.com brought before a Senate investigative hearing on Tuesday refused to answer any lawmaker questions the company’s online classifieds, including sexually-explicit services.
The executives appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, each asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
The hearing came less than 24 hours after the subcommittee released a bipartisan report implicating the popular website in the online trafficking of minors for commercial sex acts. That report that caused the Netherlands-based company to announce it was shutting down its classified service in the United States.
As of Tuesday morning, Backpage had taken down U.S.-based listings for sexual services, replacing them with a message claiming the investigation was a form of government censorship.
At the hearing, subcommittee chairman Rob Portman, R-Ohio, strongly disagreed with Backpage’s assertion, telling the assembled executives: “That’s not censorship, that’s validation of the [subcommittee’s] report.”
The report was the result of a nearly two-year investigation into sex trafficking and prostitution moving “from the street corner to the smartphone” through online marketplaces such as Backpage. Portman called it “the center of this online black market.”
But despite Backpage executives’ claims that the site has been an ally in fighting child trafficking, Portman noted that the company has resisted the subcommittee’s investigation in every possible way. That resulted in a contempt citation against the company by the full Senate – the first such citation in modern history. The company was also subject to a court order compelling it to deliver millions of documents in the preparation of the report.
That report makes it clear why Backpage fought so hard against the subpoenas, said Portman. It “conclusively shows that Backpage has been more deeply complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone imagined,” he said, citing evidence from internal emails that company executives had instructed moderators to strip out terms in advertisements that could be interpreted as code for underage prostitutes.
Despite many probing questions from Portman and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, the Backpage executives and owners present — including CEO Carl Fererr, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Padilla, and former owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey — each refused to answer any questions. Even Backpage General Counsel Elizabeth McDougal declined to answer any questions, citing both the Fifth Amendment and the common law attorney-client privilege.
But Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney representing the Backpage witnesses, offered a statement for the record claiming the Subcommittee’s entire investigation “lacks a valid legislative purpose” and that the First Amendment allows Backpage to edit user-generated content and still receive protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from liability for user-generated content if such sites do not edit the content.
The lack of testimony from the witnesses, however, did not deter Senators from expressing their anger at the company’s actions, often with voices raised.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, was particularly irate about Fererr’s failure to appear at a previous hearing despite being under subpoena: “If you’re so damn proud about your business model, why weren’t you hear 20 months ago? We’ve got a problem in this country. We do not need people who enable pimps to buy and sell our children,” he said.