Backpage.com shuts down ‘adult' ads after Senate committee report

- The owners of Backpage.com on Monday shut down the “adult” section on the online-classified advertising site, just hours after a U.S. Senate committee released a report that found the site knowingly aided users in posting ads for prostitution and child sex trafficking, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

The 53-page report issued Monday by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is the most scathing probe yet of the controversial online marketplace built by the founders of the Village Voice. The site had become a frequent target of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who was sued by the company after he wrote letters to credit card companies asking them not to handle transactions for Backpages.

Dart’s efforts earned a rebuke from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which likened his efforts to use his office to discourage the card companies to cut ties with Backpage to “suffocating” the Backpage out of existence, language the website operators repeated in a press release.

“As federal appeals court Judge Richard Posner has described, the goal is either to ‘suffocate’ Backpage out of existence or use the awesome powers of the government to force Backpage to follow in the footsteps of Craigslist and abandon its Adult advertising section,” the release states.

As of late Monday, ads in the “Adult” section of the site— which includes ads in categories including “escorts,” “body rubs” and “strippers & strip clubs” all were marked “censored,” with links leading to a message that read:”The government has unconstitutionally censored this content. What happened? Find out.” Subsequent links led to letters from Backpage founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and statements from supportive members of law enforcement and free speech advocates.

Lacey and Larkin, as well as current Backpage owner Carl Ferrer, all were slated to appear as witnesses before the subcommittee on Tuesday. Also scheduled to appear are the parents of three girls who claim they forced into prostitution facilitated by Backpage ads.

The report found that Lacey and Larkin retain control of Backpage through a series of shell companies, despite claims they sold to the a Dutch company for $600 million in 2014. The report also found that Backpage “sanitized” ads for illegal sex and sex with minors, editing out terms like “teen” or “Lolita” automatically or rejecting ads with certain terms.

The company also got some good news Monday: the U.S. Surpreme Court declined a hearing on a case filed by three Massachusetts women who sued Backpage.com, claiming they were forced into prostitution as minors by pimps who used the website. Lower courts had ruled that the 1996 Communications Decency Act protected Backpage and other online companies from criminal liability for content posted by people that use their sites.

Dart has long campaigned against Backpages, frequently using ads on the site to enact prostitution stings.

In 2015, Dart wrote a letter to MasterCard and Visa asking “as the Sheriff of Cook County, a father and a caring citizen” that the companies to stop processing transactions from the site, a move that prompted a lawsuit by Backpage accusing Dart of “coercive censorship.”

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