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Backpage exposed for the sex-trafficking business it is

Updated: 
January 13, 2017 - 12:05am

In an era of harsh political division in Washington, Senate Republicans and Democrats have found one area of unanimity: Human sex trafficking is bad, child sex trafficking is worse, and the online site Backpage provides a $600 million marketing platform for this sort of sleaze to expand rapidly across the country.

If the profiteers behind Backpage’s sex-for-sale advertisements won’t halt their activities completely, politicians and law enforcers need to continue blocking them at every turn. Backpage’s executives ridiculously assert that the First Amendment is somehow in peril because of a 20-month probe by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations exposing the website’s link to sex trafficking.

In a joint statement Monday, Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey said, “The shutdown of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed internet in the future.”

A California court accused the two Phoenix men in October of conspiring to derive profits from prostitution through classified ads. Backpage chief executive Carl Ferrer was arrested in Texas on Oct. 6.

Freedom of speech is not remotely imperiled by efforts to halt profiteering from sex slavery.

On Tuesday, the website’s St. Louis pages included bright red “censored” warnings on its adult pages, as if to assert that some outside entity had imposed a ban. In fact, Backpage executives themselves shut down the adult section because they recognize their own severe legal jeopardy following revelations by the Senate panel on Monday that Backpage knowingly filtered keywords that could signal the trafficking in children for sex. The filters removed words such as “Lolita,” “teenage,” “amber alert” and “school girl” from ads.

It would appear that Backpage was doing its own censoring of advertisers to avoid the appearance of criminal conduct. But it wasn’t necessarily removing the ads — from which the company profited mightily — only the words that might signal the company’s knowledge of illegal activities.

At the Senate panel’s hearings Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and other members hammered current and former Backpage executives with questions about the more than 400 child sex-trafficking cases linked to the website. The Backpage representatives, including Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin, consistently invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate themselves by testifying.

Why would innocent, law-abiding purveyors of online ad services deliberately self-censor by invoking the Fifth? It’s particularly curious considering the claim that their right to free speech is being violated.

The company claims to have shut down its adult advertising section, which offers services for escorts, strippers, body rubs and other pay-for-pleasure activities.

But don’t be fooled. The St. Louis website’s “dating” and “massage” sections remain active and rife with smutty ads that make clear the website continues to be open for sex-trafficking business.

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