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Close shuts 'adult' section in face of government pressure

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) talks during a Senate hearing Tuesday on Backpage in Washington in this image from video.

WASHINGTON - The online classified advertising site shut down its “adult” section this week hours after a Congressional report accused the website of knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.

Many involved in the fight against human trafficking celebrated the removal of the adult ads Tuesday, Jan. 10, but acknowledged the sex-for-sale ads would migrate elsewhere.

“It’s a little like whack-a-mole. We took care of Backpage, but we know they’ve now morphed into someplace else and we expect they’re going to pop up someplace else,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “So we’re going to have to be vigilant.”

A Senate subcommittee's report released this week accuses Backpage of actively editing posts to remove evidence of child sex trafficking.

The congressional investigation found that Backpage deleted incriminating words from sex ads prior to publication and moderators would coach users on what words to use in their ads.

“They clearly were coaching the people who buy the ads on how to place an ad for a child,” said Heitkamp, a member of the Senate subcommittee.

The report also found that Backpage employees may have intentionally underreported exploitation of children.

Heitkamp said the report confirms the “insidious truth” that North Dakota law enforcement has known about Backpage for years, “that the site is a sex trafficker’s best friend, profiting in the shadows from its facilitation of the sale of men, women and children on its site.”

Dozens of sex-for-sale ads were posted under the Backpage escort section in North Dakota this past weekend, with Fargo and northwest North Dakota with the greatest number of ads.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said shutting down the Backpage escort ads is a good step.

“I have always maintained their escort service section is nothing but an online brothel,” Stenehjem said Tuesday. “They full well know that they have been facilitating exploitation of children and of prostitution.”

In announcing its decision to remove the adult content, Backpage said it was the victim of government censorship.

U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill, however, said their subcommittee found Backpage had been far more complicit in sex trafficking than previously known.

"Backpage's response wasn't to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site," they said in a statement. "That's not 'censorship' -- it's validation of our findings."

Backpage executives appeared at the subcommittee hearing Tuesday, but did not answer questions, citing the Fifth Amendment.

The company has vowed to continue its legal battles, which have become an important test for the entire internet industry of whether online platforms can be held liable for the content posted on their sites.

Heitkamp blasted the Backpage executives during the hearing for attempting to use the First Amendment to defend the exploitation of children.

“These are the most vulnerable children in America and shame on you, shame on you for hiding behind the First Amendment while you exploit children in this county and destroy families,” Heitkamp said.

Windie Lazenko, who serves victims of sex trafficking and exploitation through 4Her North Dakota, watched the hearing online and called the report ‘horrifying.” Lazenko said she celebrates with those who fought against Backpage, but pointed out that traffickers also use other dating sites and social media.

Already Tuesday, at least a dozen sex-for-sale ads continued to be available on Backpage North Dakota under a different section of the website.

“This isn’t going to stop America’s children from being trafficked,” Lazenko said. “What has to happen is demand has to be addressed.”

Lazenko said Backpage ads have at times been a tool for investigations, finding missing and exploited children and for reaching out to help potential victims.

“We have to get a little more creative now with how we’re going to do outreach,” Lazenko said.

North Dakota law enforcement has used Backpage in undercover operations, which Stenehjem said will shift to wherever the ads migrate.

“We’ll go after those folks as well,” he said.

Backpage has claimed the website is helpful to law enforcement, but Stenehjem said the website has been unwilling to cooperate with the effort to eliminate sex trafficking.

“They have been nothing but roadblocks to our efforts,” Stenehjem said.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld a Backpage victory by refusing to revive a lawsuit filed by three young women who claimed the website facilitated their forced prostitution.

Backpage is also the target of criminal action in California, where former Attorney General Kamala Harris filed charges of pimping and money-laundering against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and the company's controlling shareholders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin.