Portman, McCaskill Win Bipartisan Committee Vote to Hold ‘Backpage’ Website Accountable

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, February 10, 2016
MEDIA CONTACTS: Kevin Smith (Portman) | 202-224-5190

John LaBombard (McCaskill) | 202-228-6263


Portman, McCaskill Win Bipartisan Committee Vote to Hold ‘Backpage’ Website Accountable

Key Senate panel votes unanimously to approve civil contempt charges against company 

WASHINGTON – A key Senate panel today unanimously approved a resolution from U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill to initiate civil contempt proceedings against the website Backpage.com, as part of the duo’s bipartisan investigation into online sex trafficking. If approved by the full Senate, the resolution would mark the first time in more than 20 years that the Senate has held anyone in contempt of Congress. 

“At the PSI hearing we had in November the subcommittee heard testimony from a group called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – highly regarded group nationally that monitors and tracks this issue. And they told us that 71 percent of all suspected sex trafficking reports, this is children sex trafficking, has a connection and a link to Backpage.com,” Portman said in his remarks. “I was in Ohio this week and met with four women who had been trafficked and are now in a program to deal with their drug addiction and help them get back on their feet, all four of them talked about it and talked about the coercion that they were under and the fact that Backpage was how they were sold.” 

“I really appreciate Senator Portman’s calm resolve on this—because it’s an antidote to how damn mad I am,” said McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor who is the top-ranking Democrat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “And everyone should be mad. This is the height of arrogance… this is thumbing one’s nose at the laws in this country. We’re not on a fishing expedition here… Today on Backpage, children are being trafficked for sex. I am disgusted that any company wouldn’t participate and cooperate with an investigation into the trafficking of children.” 

The last time the Senate approved civil contempt proceedings was 1995. Today’s vote of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was 15-0. Following expected Senate approval, the Senate’s Legal Counsel can bring a suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to ask a court to directly order compliance with the subpoena. 

In their roles as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Portman and McCaskill issued a subpoena to Backpage.com 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 and McCaskill introduced a Senate resolution to hold the company in civil contempt and force Backpage to turn over documents about its screening practices. 

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 two 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