WASHINGTON • For the first time in more than 20 years, the Senate has voted to hold in contempt a private party, the online advertising site Backpage, for not cooperating in an investigation of online sex trafficking of children and coerced adults.
The resolution, which passed Thursday by a 96-0 vote, was sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. It authorizes Senate lawyers to file a civil contempt action against Backpage in a District of Columbia federal court, asking that the court force the company to comply with its subpoenas for documents and testimony.
A lawyer for Backpage said the contempt citation sets up a legal fight on its First Amendment defense it has been asking for since last summer.
It was the first time the Senate has employed its contempt citation powers since 1995. At that time, it did so during a probe of the Whitewater land deals of then-President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Portman said the Senate has a legitimate role in investigating how the biggest online advertisers of escort services screen against illegal sex trafficking.
“The destructive crime of sex slavery has moved from the street corner to the smartphone,” he said.
On the Senate floor, McCaskill told of a 15-year-old girl who last year came to an emergency room in St. Louis and told authorities she had been “sold to truckers at truck stops” throughout the Midwest. The girl had been advertised on Backpage, McCaskill said.
“If we ignore Backpage’s refusal (to comply), what does that say to companies in the future when we need information to do our job?” McCaskill asked. “I don’t think our founding fathers would want us to go down that slippery slope. That is why we say today, enough is enough.”
But Backpage’s senior counsel Steve Ross, a partner in the Washington law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said: “Backpage.com has been urging since last summer that the Senate vote to submit the constitutional questions presented by the actions of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for resolution by the judicial branch.”
Ross said the company believes it has recent legal precedent on its side.
“As federal courts have recognized, efforts by the government to investigate or attack publishers, including those who publish on the Internet, must comply with the limits placed on the government by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights,” he said in a statement.
As part of a yearlong probe, Portman and McCaskill asked Backpage to provide proof of claims that it screens against illegal and underage sex trafficking ads. Citing First Amendment protections, Backpage refused to provide documents. Its president, Carl Ferrer last fall also refused to appear before a Portman-McCaskill hearing. The company has described itself as an ally with groups fighting human trafficking and illegal underage sex.
But senators were not buying it, and they took umbrage at the company’s refusal to cooperate.
“I’ve been in the Senate a long time and I have never seen anything quite like it,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
“We will send a message — they can run but they can’t hide,” said McCain. His wife, Cindy, runs a foundation to combat human trafficking.
Kirk, who said Backpage makes $30 million a year on the questionable ads, complained that the Justice Department has not enforced that law. He said Thursday’s contempt vote “is one more step towards stopping Backpage from facilitating modern-day slavery across the U.S.”
Backpage has sued the Justice Department to try to stop it from enforcing the law. In that suit, the company accused Congress of assailing Backpage “despite the website’s extensive efforts to prevent, screen and block improper ads from users.”
But Portman said his and McCaskill’s investigators uncovered company emails detailing how Backpage screeners “sanitize” questionable ads for escort services by editing out language that might appear to involve minors or coerced adults.
Portman said his investigators came across one Backpage ad that included a missing-child poster of the girl being advertised.