CHICAGO (CBS) — Backpage.com took down its adult advertising section this week, and officials declined to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, in the face of a blistering report accusing the website of facilitating child sex trafficking.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said his police officers have made about 700 prostitution and child sex abuse arrests connected to ads on Backpage, which he said is a valuable tool for pimps, prostitutes, and what he calls horrible people who take advantage of young women.
“Countless times, we have shown up for an ad, and the person there is a child. Countless times we have made arrests of people who are trafficking kids, and the site that they have been using has primarily been Backpage,” he said.
Executives for the website and their attorney went before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, but refused to testify, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
A 53-page U.S. Senate report issued by the subcommittee on Monday alleges the site “sanitized” ads for prostitution and child sex trafficking, by editing out words like “teen” or “Lolita,” which made it clear ads were about illegal sex.
Dart has long contended Backpage’s adult section was merely a front for advertising prostitution and sex trafficking.
“I think we’ve made 700 arrests off the site, and never once had to apologize because it was just people meeting each other,” he said.
The sheriff acknowledged, even if Backpage were shut down completely, pimps, prostitutes, and child sex traffickers would find another way to ply their illegal trade online.
“The truth is, and we’ve said this all along, is if Backpage went away, there probably will be another site,” Dart said.
Backpage has denied the allegations in the subcommittee report, and said it shut down its adult section to protest censorship.
The Senate hearing came one day after the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not hear an appeal from three sex trafficking victims who have accused Backpage of helping to promote the exploitation of children.
The justices left in place a lower court ruling that said federal law shields Backpage from liability, because the site is just hosting content created by people who use it.
The women who sued Backpage said they were sold as prostitutes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island through advertisements for escort services on the site when they were as young as 15. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, and the federal appeals court in Boston upheld that ruling.
In a separate case last month, a California judge rejected pimping charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, citing federal free speech laws. California officials have said they intend to pursue new charges against the company based on new evidence.
Prosecutors have alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage’s revenue – millions of dollars each month – comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.
The Senate report said, despite public claims to the contrary, Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey are the “true beneficial owners of the company.” The report said Larkin and Lacey loaned Ferrer $600 million to buy the company from them, and the men concealed their ownership interest through “a complex chain of domestic and international shell companies.”
Ferrer, Lacey, Larkin and chief operating officer Andrew Padilla all refused to testify Tuesday, as did Elizabeth McDougall, the company’s general counsel.
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