EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The website Backpage.com shut down its adult personal ads Monday, just hours ahead of a hearing on Capitol Hill. The move is being called a victory for those fighting human trafficking.
In recent years, law enforcement in Rhode Island has taken steps to have the website remove such ads and prosecute those benefiting from them. The website has been under scrutiny over claims that it knowingly advertised sex trafficking of adults and children.
Backpage is an online classified with an ‘adult section’ that has included links for escorts, ‘body rubs,’ strippers, and strip clubs. Each of those section links now has a red ‘censored’ on it, and links to a page claiming, “The government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”
The decision by Backpage follows a report presented by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, which says the website knowingly concealed evidence of criminality and facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking.
The website’s founders told the Los Angeles Times in a statement, “Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it. But the shutdown of Backpage’s adult classified advertising is an assault on the 1st Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future.”
The website’s founders were slated to testify before the Senator Committee on Homeland Security on Tuesday.
“I find it very convenient for Backpage.com to announce the shuttering of these ads on the eve of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing and the publication of the Committee’s study. This is clearly an attempt to shield the company from further scrutiny and potential liability,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said in a statement Tuesday.
Kilmartin has been working for years to put an end to human trafficking and crack down on online sex ads. He’s urged Congress to amend the federal Communications Decency Act, which he said Backpage has been able to hide behind to avoid prosecution.
“As the Senate report shows, there is no question that Backpage.com knew that its site was being used for the explicit purposes of child sex trafficking and profited from its actions at the expense of countless victims,” Kilmartin continued. “I would argue that Backpage.com made it easy for traffickers to engage in the illegal activity.”
“Today may be a victory, but the war on sex trafficking has not yet been won,” he added.
In social media postings, critics started to use the hashtag #freespeech in protest, saying this will push adult workers further into the shadows and into more dangerous situations.
A Providence mother of three, Ashley Masi, was killed by Daniel Tejeda when he responded to her advertisement for an escort service posted on Backpage. Tejeda is now serving life in prison.
Providence police have also conducted two rounds of what they called ‘operation Backpage’ arresting more than two dozen people.
“If you are a so-called pimp, managing women for the purpose of procurement for sex for hire, we’re coming after you,” Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said in April of 2015.
“I’ve instructed my law department to seek out all legal avenues that we can do to either shut Backpage down here in our city and our state or to take appropriate measures so that it can’t continue to be used in this way,” added Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.
Polaris, a leading group in the fight against human trafficking, released a statement saying that while the decision by Backpage to block the adult section will not end human trafficking, “It will make it harder for traffickers and sex buyers to profit from, control, and exploit adults and children who are in the sex trade against their will. This action is certainly a positive step forward for efforts to fight human trafficking in the U.S.”
A statement from Sen. Portman said a report found the website made $150 million annually and is a market leader in commercial sex advertising.