The U.S. attorney general should investigate and prosecute Backpage.com under the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act and other federal laws that protect children from abuse and exploitation.

Share story

BACKPAGE.COM is a website where anyone can sell anything — from used furniture to people.

When a Senate committee investigating sex trafficking on Backpage.com issued a subpoena to the company’s CEO last year, he did not even bother to show up. On Feb. 10, the Senate’s bipartisan Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs voted unanimously to seek civil contempt charges against Backpage.com.

That’s not enough. Congress should use its considerable powers to rein in Backpage.com. Attorney General Loretta Lynch should do the same.

Backpage.com’s “adult services” section raked in at least $28.9 million in the past year, according to media consultant AIM Group. That includes income from ads that sell kids for sex. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has stated that 71 percent of the child-sex-trafficking online tips it receives involve Backpage.com ads.

It is so easy to peddle children on Backpage.com that kids are hocking other kids. In 2013, a suburban Minneapolis high-school cheerleader was charged with advertising a 16-year-old on Backpage.com and keeping the girl’s $60 “earnings.” In 2015, two Spokane-area brothers (aged 17 and 15) were charged with selling girls on Backpage.com.

The media have even reported on killings that started with Backpage.com adult-services ads — such as Mary Grier and Ashley Masi, both strangled in Rhode Island, Sarai Michaels, stabbed multiple times in an Illinois hotel room, Sanisha Johnson of New York, robbed and shot by two men, and Cynthia Worthy of Michigan, found stabbed to death in an alley.

Law enforcement and parents have contacted Backpage.com, begging it to delete pictures and ads featuring children. Congress passed resolutions in 2012 stating that Backpage.com should shut down parts of the website linked to sex trafficking. Mayors of nearly 50 cities urged Backpage.com to require identification from people posting ads for sex. And 49 state attorneys general wrote to both Backpage.com and Congress regarding the website’s link to sex trafficking and asked for cooperation with law enforcement.

Backpage.com has openly fought all efforts to curb sex trafficking on its website. It successfully sued three states — Washington, New Jersey and Tennessee — that had moved to stop online sex trafficking. Backpage.com argued that the Communications Decency Act exempts Internet-based companies from state regulation and that its commercial sex ads are protected by the First Amendment and the Commerce Clause.

Backpage.com has also fought tooth and nail against federal inquiry. After snubbing the Senate, Backpage.com took the bold step of suing U.S. Attorney General Lynch to prevent the Department of Justice from enforcing the newly enacted SAVE Act, which makes it a crime to advertise a child for commercial sex.

Instead of focusing on civil-contempt charges, Congress and the Justice Department should take an aggressive stance against Backpage.com. Powerful tools are already at their disposal to rein in this company that so publicly opposes legitimate efforts to stop child rape.

First, Congress should repeal — or at least modify — the Communications Decency Act so states and municipalities can investigate, regulate and prosecute online enterprises that violate the law, including Backpage.com. Congress needs no authorization to fix this law.

Second, Lynch should investigate and prosecute Backpage.com under the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act and other federal laws that protect children from abuse and exploitation. Lynch should look to Seattle prosecutors’ and law enforcement’s innovative legal strategies and technologies to stop online sex trafficking.

Both Congress and the attorney general can pursue these strategies now regardless of whether Backpage.com is held in contempt of Congress. No individual or corporation is above the law, and no business should profit from child rape.

The Internet is here to stay. It should not be allowed to function as an unregulated open market for selling people.