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Patrick L.
Democrat VT

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  • Directing Senate Legal Counsel to Bring a Civil Action

    by Senator Patrick J. Leahy

    Posted on 2016-03-17

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    LEAHY. Madam President, today the Senate will vote on S. Res. 377, a resolution directing Senate legal counsel to bring a civil action to enforce a subpoena of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, PSI, against Carl Ferrer, chief executive officer of backpage.com LLC, ``backpage''. I support this resolution in furtherance of PSI's bipartisan investigation into businesses that directly or indirectly facilitate sex trafficking.

    Backpage officials have publicly acknowledged that their website may have been used by criminals to engage in sex trafficking, including the trafficking of children. Identifying and shutting down the tools that help criminals engage in such illegality is critical to preventing these crimes. We must do all we can to stop these criminals and to support the survivors. That is why I support this resolution and why I have worked tirelessly to enact legislation to prevent human trafficking in the first place and to provide resources for trafficking victims so that they can begin to rebuild their lives.

    Last year the chairman and ranking member of PSI jointly launched a bipartisan investigation to examine businesses that directly or indirectly facilitate sex trafficking. Backpage is one of the companies that PSI has been investigating, but it is not the only one. PSI aims to learn as much as possible about these businesses so that the Senate can craft appropriate legislative and policy responses to combat sex trafficking and child exploitation.

    On October 1, 2015, and in accordance with subcommittee rules, PSI voted on a bipartisan basis to issue a subpoena to backpage's CEO, Carl Ferrer. This subpoena was issued only after backpage failed to comply with a subpoena issued earlier in the year and after several backpage employees refused to testify. The subpoena required, [[Page S1565]] among other things, the production of backpage's policies and practices with respect to reviewing advertisements for potential criminal activity, information on how backpage cooperates with law enforcement, data on how many advertisements backpage denies or deletes, and information relating to revenue earned through adult advertisements. To date, backpage has refused to comply with the subpoena.

    On November 19, 2015, PSI held a hearing about backpage.com. At this hearing, the senior vice president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children testified that 71 percent of reports of suspected child trafficking it receives involve backpage. The hearing also raised significant concerns about backpage's willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. PSI issued a subpoena compelling the testimony of Carl Ferrer at the hearing, but he refused to appear.

    The refusal of backpage to comply with the subpoena compelled the full Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to vote unanimously in favor of the resolution now before us. The resolution authorizes Senate legal counsel to begin to take action to enforce the subpoena in Federal court. PSI's investigation is exactly the type of oversight the Senate should be conducting. The subject matter is one of utmost importance, and PSI's efforts have been jointly conducted by the chairman and ranking member of PSI since the investigation began. Most importantly, the requested documents are critical to understanding how online sex trafficking is effectuated and to finding ways to stop it.

    Authorizing Senate legal counsel to enforce a Senate subpoena is a very serious matter that should not be taken lightly. This action should be taken only in the most limited of circumstances and should never be pursued for partisan or political motives. Given the serious nature of this investigation and the unanimous support by all members of the committee and subcommittee throughout the process, I support this resolution.

    Mrs. FEINSTEIN. Madam President, I wish to express my strong support for the resolution to enforce the subpoena against backpage's CEO Carl Ferrer.

    From my work as chairman and now ranking member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, I know how important congressional investigations can be to ensure that we have all the facts, and that is the type of issue before us today.

    In this case, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is conducting a bipartisan investigation into the use of the Internet to facilitate sex trafficking, particularly sex trafficking of minors. As my colleagues know, this has been an area I have worked to address legislatively, including in an amendment to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act that passed 97-2 that makes it a Federal crime to knowingly advertise minors for commercial sex. I believe the Investigations Subcommittee's work can inform the work of the Congress as a whole to better protect vulnerable children trafficked over the Internet.

    Backpage is a Web site that allows for the advertisement of commercial sex online. In 2013, it was estimated that $8 out of every $10 spent on online sex advertising in the U.S. goes to backpage. Moreover, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has itself determined that backpage is linked to 71 percent of all suspected child sex trafficking reports that it receives from the public through its ``CyberTipline.'' Thus, this bipartisan investigation naturally involves questions about the specifics of how backpage operates.

    As I understand it, the subcommittee's subpoena seeks documents to help explain backpage's current policies and practices. These questions involve, among other things, whether backpage edits the content of ads before they are published, whether backpage might be more helpful to law enforcement with the data it collects, and whether backpage has resources sufficient to further prevent trafficking on its site. But backpage has refused to comply with this subpoena.

    Where an investigative subcommittee is conducting a bipartisan investigation into the most horrific crimes committed against young people, it is the right thing to do for the Senate to enforce this subpoena through the legal process.

    I would like to also share about a case that arose in my State very recently. Last week, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrested three individuals charged with abducting a 20-year-old woman and transporting her to the Bay Area to sexually exploit her. The victim was initially kidnapped in Palmdale, where she was viciously assaulted and then moved 6 hours north to Oakland, where her pictures were taken and posted to backpage.com. She was then driven back down to Orange County and had a gun pointed at her by one of her attackers. The victim was fortunately able to make some panicked calls to her mother while taken captive, and the L.A. Sheriff's office was able to find her in a motel and rescue her. The suspects were then captured and now face a litany of charges. This all occurred just weeks ago.

    The point is sex trafficking, facilitated by the Internet, continues to plague communities all over the country.

    I recently met with John Clark, the new president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The National Center reported that over the last 5 years, there has been an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking and that this increase is ``directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex.'' That is sobering.

    Every day in America, vulnerable victims are advertised over the Internet and exploited by traffickers. I believe the Congress must get to the bottom of it, try to understand how it is happening, and do all that we can to stop it. So I fully support enforcement of this subpoena and urge my colleagues to do the same.

    I thank the Chair.

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