Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Brings Civil Action Against Backpage in Federal District Court

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, March 29, 2016
MEDIA CONTACTS: Kevin Smith (Portman) | 202-224-5190

John LaBombard (McCaskill) | 202-228-6263

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) announced that the Senate Legal Counsel has filed a civil action in the federal district court in Washington, D.C. to enforce a subpoena on CEO Carl Ferrer and require the company to turn over responsive documents relevant to their investigation into the company’s business practices. In their role as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Portman and McCaskill issued a subpoena to for documents about the company’s business practices, particularly how it screens advertisements for warning signs of sex trafficking.  Because Backpage has refused to comply with that subpoena, Portman & McCaskill introduced a Senate resolution to hold the company in civil contempt and force Backpage to turn over withheld documents. Backpage’s failure to comply with the court’s order to turn over responsive documents may result in civil fines and / or criminal penalties. On March 17, 2016, the Senate unanimously voted to authorize the Senate Legal Counsel to bring the action today. 

“We have given every opportunity to comply with a lawful subpoena, but they have continued to stonewall our bipartisan investigation,” said Portman and McCaskill in a joint statement.  “The Senate’s decision to bring civil action against Backpage will help us better understand how lawmakers, law enforcement, and even private business can more effectively combat the serious and heart-breaking crime of sex trafficking that thrives on an online black market.” 

Today marks the first time in more than 20 years that the Senate has filed a civil contempt action. In 1995, the Senate voted to authorize – but never filed – civil contempt proceedings. The last time that the Senate actually filed a civil enforcement action in court was in 1993. 

On passage of the Senate contempt resolution on March 17, John F. Clark, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) said: “We have long been alarmed about Backpage’s business practices that fail to prevent children from being sold for sex on its website. The work of your Subcommittee to investigate these practices and to demand answers is to be widely commended… We are grateful for your dedication to the safety of our nation’s children and look forward to continuing to work with you and others who are working tireless to half the terrible tragedy of online child sex trafficking.” 

With estimated annual revenues of more than $150 million, Backpage is a market leader in commercial-sex advertising and has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking, including trafficking of children.  In a bipartisan staff report issued four months ago, the Subcommittee revealed evidence that Backpage has had a practice of editing advertisements before they are posted by deleting certain words and phrases, which likely served to conceal illegality. The subpoena seeks more information about that practice, but Backpage has refused to turn over documents. 

The Subcommittee’s bipartisan report is here. A link to the November 19 hearing is here