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Lawmakers Demand Sessions Investigate Backpage's 'Criminal Role in Sex Trafficking' in Wake of Misleading Washington Post Article

Post says Backpage hired a contractor that catfished on foreign competitors' sites.

Philippe Lissac / GODONG/picture-alliance / Godong/NewscomPhilippe Lissac / GODONG/picture-alliance / Godong/NewscomThe Washington Post has been playing right into politicians' hands when it comes to the narrative about Backpage. A series of recent Post articles suggest a sinister plot by Backpage executives to promote human trafficking, when all the paper's "trove of newly discovered documents" seems to show is that the company hired a firm to promote Backpage.com on foreign competitors' sites.

"A contractor for the controversial classifieds website Backpage.com has been aggressively soliciting and creating sex-related ads, despite Backpage's repeated insistence that it had no role in the content of ads posted on its site," the Post opens one article—thereby kicking things off in a misleading manner.

While it will take the Post writers 21 more paragraphs to mention it, the contractors solicited all sorts of user-generated advertising for Backpage.com, not just sex-related or adult-oriented advertising.

The ads the contractors created, meanwhile, were either 1) posted to competitors' sites—not Backpage—in a ploy to lure perusers of those sites to Backpage, or 2) draft ads made from existing copy on competitors' sites. The contracting company, Philippines-based Avion BPO, would offer users of these other sites a free first listing on Backpage.com, along with a link to the draft ad that they could easily activate.

Based on this evidence, Post writers suggest that Backpage's years of denials that the site "facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking" could be a lie. But for all their breathless insinuations, the writers don't actually tie a single Avion-brokered ad to illegal conduct, let alone harm against children.

From what the Post reveals, it's also unclear whether Backpage even knew about the tactics Avion workers were using to generate new listings. It's possible the contracting company came up with the bait-and-switch strategy on its own.

Regardless, Backpage's claims to Congress and U.S. courts about its ad policies have always referenced U.S. content. Avion's activity was relegated to overseas endeavors (and, since laws vary greatly from country to country when it comes to both internet content and prostitution, was not necessarily illegal at all). To use Avion as a bouncing-off point to open yet another U.S. federal inquiry into Backpage—as Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) and Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) are now doing—is purely opportunistic, as Avion's creation or not of foreign ads is irrelevant for U.S. legal purposes.

Here in the United States, Senators recently spent more than a year pouring through internal Backpage documents related to adult-ad content. Yet nothing in their resulting report negates Backpage's claims that the company does not create the content that appears on its site, nor does it show a company carelessly indifferent to its site's content. Backpage repeatedly tweaked its automated filter and manual-review policies in an attempt to strike a balance between banning all "adult" content and giving free reign to ad posters. This is above and beyond what's required by law in order to benefit from Section 230 protection.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that third-party web publishers and platforms are immune from liability if a user-posted ad results in criminal activity (with a few exceptions). It seriously limits the ability of opportunists in government and the general populace to take down any website or app they don't like. Without Section 230 protection, most of the Internet would be vulnerable to frivolous civil lawsuits and severe prosecutorial overreach (such as charging Facebook as an accessory any time someone livestreams himself doing something illegal). And people like this letter writer could get their wish for lowly content screeners at social sites to be tried as collaborators should any illegal activity unwittingly get by.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of prosecutors, politicians, and other authorities who welcome the weakening of Section 230. This includes Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), who told the Post that she hoped the Avion documents would open "the floodgates of liability for Backpage" because "nobody deserves it more."

McCaskill was one of five U.S. lawmakers, including Reps. Maloney and Wagner and Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Delaware), who last week petitioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into Backpage "for its criminal role in sex trafficking in America."

Rep. Wagner is also the force behind the Section-230 amending H.R. 1865 (titled the "Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017"). The bill would exempt web publishers and platforms from Section 230 protection if user-generated ads, posts, chats, etc., somehow facilitate sex trafficking by force/fraud/coercion or any person under age 18 soliciting something of value for sex. It would also:

  • Create a new federal crime: "publishing information provided by an information content provider with reckless disregard that the information is in furtherance of" or an attempt to engage in 1) sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion, and/or 2) prostitution involving someone under age 18 (regardless of whether their age is known)
  • Define "particpation in a sex trafficking venture" as any activity "that furthers or in anyway aids or abets" the participation of a minor in prostitution and/or sex-trafficking by force/fraud/coercion

The new publishing crime would come with a fine, imprisonment of up to 20 years, or both. The measure also specifically states that neither the federal government nor a plaintiff in a civil action must "prove any intent on the part of the information content provider" in order to satisfy the elements of the crime. (For more on the implications of the bill, see this post from law professor Eric Goldman.)

Sen. Portman recently cited the Post's Avion article on the Senate floor as evidence for the urgency of addressing Section 230 and Backpage. After falsely claiming that the Post had found "Backpage workers were active co-creators" of "many" ads "that seek to traffic women and underage girls," Portman used his own fake news to advocate that Backpage "should lose their immunity under the Communications Decency Act."

Photo Credit: Philippe Lissac / GODONG/picture-alliance / Godong/Newscom

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  • Incredulous||

    "Sex/human trafficking" is the new bogeyman that politicians on both sides are now going after. Of course, it's mostly total bullshit and just being used as a way to attack sexual freedoms. All it will do is ruin a lot of lives for the "crime" of sexual desire and drive all this stuff underground where it will be unsafe for all involved. It's one fucked up fascist puritanical witch hunt.

  • Crusty Juggler :)||

    We both used the term "boogeyman!" Awww! Us!

    *hugs*

  • geo1113||

    Get a room!

  • Crusty Juggler :)||

    Fun fact: I offer unhurried services.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I guess clowns just aren't sexy enough to get Congress's attention anymore.

  • Sevo||

    Don't they need to investigate some kid who might be a year too old for little-league? How about Safeway's overcharging by spraying the produce with water and then selling by weight?
    There are important issues which need attention!

  • Crusty Juggler :)||

    First, there was a recent presidental decree that The Washington Post is to be referred to as "Amazon's Washington Post. Please correct this or I will be forced to contact the White House.

    Second, Backpage.com is the morality panic's new boogeyman, the new easy target they collectively can't resist, and I am still not really sure why they have been singled out.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Sessions is probably the right guy to have as AG if you believe in this panic. Bipartisanship!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Its almost as if these politicians do NOT want to get re-elected in 2018/2020.

    Instead of doing the things that Americans want like repeal ObamaCare and tax reform, they are going to spend their time on this.

  • timbo||

    These are the weekly distractions to get the zombie horde in an uproar about nothing.

    Its like pictures of birds covered in oil. A little outrage and kid danger panic and no one pays attention to the massive entitlement spending, never ending wars, bureaucratic wastes, and debt creation.

    And it will work like a charm.
    What business is it of the united states government what a news paper and website do in the realm of advertising?
    The answer of course is the same business that they have in grilling baseball players with giant necks.
    A witch hunt is always great fodder for dipshits.

  • Rich||

    breathless insinuations

    Nice album name.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Unhurried Services was my nickname in college.

  • Dillinger||

    >>> Senators recently spent more than a year pouring through internal Backpage documents related to adult-ad content

    of course they did...queue Helen Lovejoy.

  • Brandybuck||

    Front page of Reason not safe for work!

  • KerryW||

    I noticed that, too. I believe the proper response is "I'll be in my bunk."

  • Dillinger||

    "no, boss, there's little stars on all the nipples, so it's okay"

  • Juice||

    I guess I can't take a glance at H&R at work anymore. Thanks.

  • fafalone||

    My favorite part of this latest moral panic is how they've got everyone worked up over "child sex trafficking", which conjures up images so emotional nobody notices or cares that 99.99% of it is 15-17 year olds, mostly posting ads themselves, with the rare instance of runaways being exploited. As terrible as that exploitation is, it's not trafficking and late teens aren't children, and calling it child sex trafficking is an insult to all the children actually being sex trafficked in certain very poor places in the world, none of them being in the US.
    And the scariest part is how this moral panic unites right-wingers, who want to suppress all prostitution because of religious conservatism, and left-wing SJWs, who despite all their rhetoric about empowering women show their true colors in thinking any women engaged in prostitution is a victim and therefore her choices are invalid, but since women aren't allowed to take responsibility for their decisions, we should still suppress all prostitution, but only actually arrest men who purchase services from women.

  • noneya||

    THIS IS THE BIGGEST LOAD OF BS I HAVE EVER HEARD. I WORK ON BP. I AM FEMALE AND OVER 50 YRS OLD. YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT? YOU PEOPLE NEED TO GROW UP AND GET A LIFE. I DO NOT DRINK, DO DRUGS OR SMOKE AND YOU KNOW THERE ARE SOME PEOPLE OUT HERE WHO HAVE TO DO WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO TO GET BY BECAUSE MOST EMPLOYERS ARE TOO DAMN GOOD TO GIVE THEM A JOB. BACKPAGE DOES NOT WRITE ADS FOR PEOPLE. THEY SURE IN THE HELL DID NOT WRITE MINE OR RE WRITE IT. AND I HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF ANY CHILDREN WORKING ON THE SITE. THAT IS JUST A COVER UP FOR PRUDE PEOPLE WHO WOULD RATHER SEE PEOPLE STARVE ON THE STREET THAN TO TRY AND MAKE ENDS MEET. ILL BE DAMNED IF I GO BACK TO LIVING ON THE STREET. PAY MY BILLS PUT FOOD ON MY TABLE PAY MY RENT ETC AND I WILL QUIT. OTHERWISE STOP WITH THE INSANITY. AND HERES ANOTHER HINT. THERE ARE ALOT OF UGLY GUYS OUT HERE WHO CANT GET A WOMAN TO HAVE SEX WITH. TAKE THIS AWAY FROM THEM AND GUESS WHAT? YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE A LOT OF MEN STARTING TO GRAB WOMEN ON THE STREET AT RANDOM AND RAPING THEM. YOU WANT THAT? NEXT THING YOU KNOW YOU LL BE TELLING MEN THEY CANT PLAY WITH THEIRSELVES OR WATCH PORN. GET A GRIP ON REALITY. BACKPAGE DOESNT HAVE A DAMN THING TO DO WITH YOUR MORAL SELFISH WAY OF THINKING. ITS ALL ABOUT YOU. BUT ITS NOT. CARL IS NOT A PIMP. THAT IS BS AND YOU KNOW IT.

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