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  • Directing Senate Legal Counsel to Bring a Civil Action

    by Senator Rob Portman

    Posted on 2016-03-17

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    PORTMAN. Madam President, I rise today in support of S. Res. 377, which is a resolution to enforce a subpoena of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair. I will be joined shortly by my colleague Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee and whom I worked with as a partner on this issue over the past year.

    This is a subpoena that we issued to a group called backpage-- backpage.com. This resolution is intended to enforce that subpoena. Backpage and its chief executive officer, Carl Ferrer, have not been willing to cooperate with the committee. Unfortunately, we are at the point where we have to seek the enforcement of our subpoena.

    For nearly a year now, Senator McCaskill and I conducted a bipartisan investigation into the scourge of human trafficking on the Internet with a focus on sex trafficking involving children. In the past 5 years, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported an over 800-percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking, an increase the organization has found to be ``directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.'' They testified before our subcommittee about this. They are the experts. They see this huge increase being related to the Internet. In other words, the destructive crime of sex slavery has moved from the street corner to the smartphone.

    [[Page S1562]] An adult can now shop for underaged trafficking victims from their computer screen. Sex traffickers are well aware that backpage.com, the biggest one by far, offers them a quick and easy-to-use marketplace to sell children and coerce adults.

    Here is how the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children spells it out, describing this growing problem at a hearing I chaired late last year: Online classified ad sites such as backpage.com . . . allow [sex traffickers] to remain anonymous, test out new markets, attempt to evade public or law enforcement detection, and easily locate customers to consummate their sale of children for sex. Online sex trafficking also enables traffickers to easily update an existing ad with a new location and quickly move the child to another geographic location where there are more customers seeking to purchase a child for rape or sexual abuse.

    This is from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. As cochair of the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, I have spent many hours with those dedicated to fighting this crime and those who are victimized by it. For victims, the toll of sex trafficking is measured in stolen childhoods and painful trauma. For traffickers, it is measured in dollars--often a lot of dollars. It is a problem, I believe, that should command more attention around our country and certainly here in the U.S. Congress.

    The aim of our investigation is very straightforward. We want to understand how lawmakers, law enforcement, and even private businesses can more effectively combat this serious crime that thrives on the online black market.

    Traffickers have found refuge in new customers through Web sites that specialize in advertising ``ordinary'' prostitution and lawful escort services. A business called backpage.com is the market leader in that industry, with annual revenues in excess of $130 million last year. Backpage has a special niche: According to one industry analysis in 2013, $8 out of every $10 spent on online commercial sex advertising in the United States goes to backpage.com. The public record indicates that backpage sits at the center of the online black market for sex trafficking.

    Again, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has reported that of the suspected child trafficking reports it receives from the public, 71 percent involve backpage. Again, they have said that of the suspected child trafficking reports they receive from the public--and they have a 1-800 number; they get reports from the public--71 percent involve backpage.com.

    According to a leading anti-trafficking organization called Shared Hope International, ``Service providers working with child sex trafficking victims have reported between 80 percent and 100 percent of their clients have been bought and sold on backpage.com.'' In fact, this organization has documented more than 400 cases in 47 States of children being sex trafficked on backpage.com.

    Despite all this, backpage executives said they are committed to combatting sex trafficking. The company claims that its internal procedures for reviewing and screening the advertisements ``lead the industry.'' That claim led us to ask a very simple question: What are those industry-leading procedures? If they are so effective in the fight against human trafficking, Congress and other lawmakers ought to know about it. That is why Senator McCaskill and I asked backpage for documents about their ad-screening practices--a process backpage calls ``moderation.'' We also asked for other information about their business practices--fair questions, targeted questions, relevant questions. The company has refused to answer them and refused to cooperate.

    We then took the next step and issued a subpoena to backpage's CEO, Carl Ferrer, inquiring him to produce documents about backpage's moderation practices, efforts to combat human trafficking, and financial information. The company essentially told us no. Wrapping itself in a privileged First Amendment argument, backpage refuses to produce documents about its business practices and told us that the company refuses to even look for documents--not just that they don't have the documents, but they refuse to even look for them, a clear sign of willful contempt for the Senate's process.

    That is why we are here today on the floor. Senator McCaskill and I gave backpage every opportunity to cooperate in good faith with our investigation. We carefully considered its objections to the subpoena. We actually issued a 19-page opinion, thoughtfully overruling their objections and directing backpage to comply. They continued to stonewall.

    In the meantime, our investigation has not stopped. Our investigators and lawyers found a number of third parties and other witnesses who had information about backpage's practices and procedures. Along the way, we discovered that from 2010 to 2012, backpage outsourced much of its screening and, again, this moderation; meaning, looking at these ads coming in, the screening and moderation they outsourced to others, including to workers in India.

    We obtained emails from the California company that managed those India-based moderators, including emails with backpage's CEO and other executives. These emails are deeply troubling. Our investigation showed that backpage edits advertisements before posting them by removing certain words, certain phrases, certain images. For instance, they might remove a word or image that makes it clear that the sexual services are being offered for money. Then they might post this sanitized version of an ad. While this editing changes nothing about the underlying transaction, it tends to conceal the evidence of illegality. In other words, backpage's editing procedures--far from being an effective anti-trafficking measure--serve to sanitize the ads of the illegal content to the outside viewer.

    We still don't know the full extent of backpage's editing practices. How much of the illegal conduct--or even the fact that they were selling minors online--was being concealed? Why? Backpage will not tell us.

    Then there is this email. It tells the moderators what to do if they have doubts about whether a girl advertised on backpage is underage. I am going to quote from this email. It says: If in doubt about underage: The process should for now be to accept the ad . . . however, if you ever find anything that you feel is underage and is more than just suspicious, you can delete the ad. . . . Only delete if you [are] really very sure person is underage.

    To be clear, we didn't get this information from backpage itself because it refuses to provide it. This came from the contractor. Backpage claims emails like this are protected by the First Amendment, which is not accurate.

    In November, Senator McCaskill and I released a bipartisan staff report about our investigation and held a hearing to consider what to do about backpage's noncompliance. I encourage Members to take a look at this staff report. It is online. You can find it.

    By the way, despite being under subpoena, backpage's CEO refused to show up for the hearing we held. Shortly before the hearing date, he simply informed us that he wasn't going to show up. This is something Senator McCaskill and I will continue to focus on. But others did show up for our hearing. We heard testimony from law enforcement, prosecutors, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children confirming what we had come to suspect: Backpage is not really an ally in the fight against human trafficking; they said it profits from it.

    The general counsel of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children told us that it had dozens of meetings with backpage about improving the company's anti-trafficking measures, but those meetings ended because the national center concluded that backpage was ``not engaging in good faith efforts to deter the selling and buying of children for sex on its Web site.'' The national center told us that ``[d]espite backpage's assertions, it was adopting and publicizing only carefully selected sound practices, while resisting recommended substantive measures that would protect more children from being sold for sex . . . on backpage.com.'' For example, the national center noted that backpage did not ``hash'' its photos--a very low-cost technique for comparing digital images that could help identify missing children.

    The national center also noted that backpage has more stringent rules to post an ad to sell a pet, a motorcycle, [[Page S1563]] or a boat than it does to sell a person. A user is required to submit a verified phone number for selling a hamster but not in placing ads that could involve the sale of a child for sex. Think about that.

    The human toll of all this is staggering. It is hard to overstate the traumatic effect of a minor being advertised on a daily basis on a site like backpage.com.

    In a recent lawsuit brought against backpage in Boston, the plaintiff was a 15-year-old girl who had been raped over 1,000 times as a result of being advertised on backpage.com--1,000 times. In the course of our investigation, we also heard some similarly heart-wrenching stories. For example, backpage receives reports from families pleading with it to take down ads of their children. Here is one such email sent to backpage that the national center shared with us. Remember, this is an email from a parent about a child being sent to backpage. It said this: Your Web site has ads featuring our 16-year-old daughter [ ], posing as an escort. She is being pimped out by her old [boyfriend], and she is underage. I have emailed the ad multiple times using your website, but have gotten no response. . . . For God's sake, she's only 16. . . . Stuff like this shouldn't be allowed to happen.

    This is from a parent pleading.

    Even after receiving such reports, the national center tells us backpage often does not remove the ad. Instead, the ad remains live on the Web site, which allows the abuse of that child to continue. Imagine as a parent or a grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister feeling helpless in the face of backpage not even being willing to take down an ad of a family member.

    It is sometimes hard to square backpage's public statements about its business practices with the reality on the ground. For example, the national center recently was searching for a child who was missing--and by the way, still is missing--and found she appeared in a sex advertisement on backpage. Sadly, that is pretty common. What made this case even more incredible was that backpage ad actually contained a missing-child poster of that same child. So the ad advertising sex actually used the missing-child poster of that child. That poster had the child's real name on it, real age, real picture, and the date she went missing. The other pictures in the ad included topless photos. We certainly would like to know what supposedly market-leading screening and moderation procedures missed that one. And that, Madam President, is exactly why we need the documents we have asked for from backpage, documents we have subpoenaed from backpage. Without them, we can't really evaluate how sex trafficking is proliferated in these online marketplaces. We can't really evaluate how Congress can do a better job fighting against this crime. We can't help the many prosecutors at the local level who are trying to stop this practice or the attorneys general around the United States of America who are trying to stop this practice. We can't really help to stop this from happening.

    To be clear, our purpose is absolutely not to shut down any particular company or to deter protected advertising for lawful services. This is not an attempt to shut down something that is lawful on the Internet, it is an attempt to stop something that is unlawful, and nor are we even looking for information about individual advertisers. In fact, Senator McCaskill and I have made clear that backpage should redact from any documents they send us any of the personally identifying information about its users. We don't need that. That is not what we are about. What we are interested in are facts that will enable smart legislation on a critical issue of public concern. We hope our investigation will help to combat this process directly but also will help to generate legislation here in the Congress.

    This civil contempt resolution before us today--S. Res. 377--will enable us to get those facts. It was reported out of the full committee unanimously. I wish to thank Senator Ron Johnson, the chairman of the committee, and Senator Tom Carper, the ranking member of the committee, and all of our colleagues on the committee for their unwavering support for this investigation.

    This will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Senate has had to enforce a subpoena in court. I can't think of a time when it has been more justified. To my colleagues who are wondering about this, again, I hope they will look at our report and see why it is so important that we move forward with enforcing this subpoena.

    The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has a long history of investigating crime that infiltrates interstate commerce and affects our Nation's health and safety. In our era, the crime of human trafficking has become a scourge, and Congress needs to know everything it can to be able to better fight it. No investigation of that subject could omit backpage.com. Again, as we have heard from these outside groups, the vast majority of this sex trafficking that is going on online is through this very site. The National Association of Attorneys General has described backpage as a ``hub'' of ``human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors.'' That is the attorneys general around the country.

    Unfortunately, this is an issue that affects all of our communities. It knows no ZIP Code.

    Madam President, before I yield the floor, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a number of statements in support of the resolution from the Nation's leading anti-trafficking organizations, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: ``Rights4Girls applauds the Senate's passage of this important resolution that will provide much needed accountability and insight into Backpage.com's business practices--practices that have led to the trafficking and exploitation of children all across this country. We are especially grateful to Senators Portman and McCaskill for their leadership in advancing this resolution and for their dedication to protecting our nation's most vulnerable children.''--Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Rights4Girls ``I commend the Senate, particularly Senators Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill, for their leadership on the investigation into Backpage and their dedication to assisting victims of child sex trafficking and their families. I am outraged at the business practices Backpage continues to engage in and that they are not being held accountable for facilitating and profiting from child sex trafficking on their website. Backpage is a shopping mall for people who want to exploit children and they shouldn't be able to continue profiting on the rape of children without repercussions. These creeps keep hiding behind the veil of the First Amendment while knowingly allowing children to be trafficked for sex on their website. This isn't about prostitution or sex between consenting adults, this is about children being purchased for rape and sexual abuse.--John Walsh, human and victim rights advocate and creator of America's Most Wanted ``The Subcommittee's efforts to investigate the practices of Backpage.com and demand answers in an effort to prevent the sex trafficking of children on that website and others like it is critical to our work to end sex trafficking. Shared Hope proudly supports the resolution and the Subcommittee's important work. We are grateful to you for your bravery and diligence.''--Shared Hope International Shared Hope International, Vancouver, WA, March 16, 2016.

    Hon. Rob Portman, Chair, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC.

    Hon. Claire McCaskill, Ranking Member, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC., Dear Chairman Portman and Ranking Member McCaskill: Shared Hope International is writing to strongly support the resolution directing the Senate Legal Counsel to bring a civil action to enforce a subpoena issued by the Subcommittee to the Chief Executive Officer of Backpage.com, Carl Ferrer (S. Res. 377). We thank you for your brave leadership on this investigation and dedication to assisting the victims of online commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.

    Shared Hope International was founded and exists to end sex trafficking of women and children and assist the victims through restoration and access to justice. Since 1998, we have implemented programs and advocated for laws and policies that would ensure victims of sex trafficking are protected, served and honored as victims. Increasingly, the victims we serve have been sold for sex on the internet, and most often the website named is Backpage.com. In fact, NCMEC reports that 71% of all child sex trafficking reports to the CyberTipline relate to Backpage ads. Shared Hope documented 495 cases representing at least 548 child victims who were sold for sex on Backpage.com in nearly every [[Page S1564]] state in the U.S. These are cases we identified through media coverage, which means they represent only a fraction of the total number of cases. Our partners indicate most of the youth they serve in recovery programs were sold on the site. A study by YouthSpark in Atlanta, Georgia, found 53% of children receiving care from service providers across the country were bought and sold for sex on Backpage.com.

    The Subcommittees efforts to investigate the practices of Backpage.com and demand answers in an effort to prevent the sex trafficking of children on that website and others like it is critical to our work to end sex trafficking. Shared Hope proudly supports the resolution and the Subcommittee's important work. We are grateful to you for your bravery and diligence.

    Sincerely, Linda Smith, (U.S. Congress 1995-99, Washington State Senate/House 1983- 94), Founder and President, Shared Hope International.

    ____ National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Alexandria, VA, March 15, 2016.

    Hon. Rob Portman, Chairman, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC., Hon. Claire McCaskill, Ranking Member, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC.

    Dear Chairman Portman and Ranking Member McCaskill: On behalf of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the families and children we serve, I am writing to express our strong support for your resolution directing the Senate Legal Counsel to bring a civil action to enforce a subpoena issued by your Subcommittee to the Chief Executive Officer of Backpage (S. Res. 377). We commend you for your leadership on this investigation and your dedication to assisting victims of child sex trafficking and their families.

    NCMEC is a private, non-profit organization that for over 31 years has been designated by Congress to serve as the national clearinghouse on issues related to missing and exploited children. In this role, NCMEC has learned a great deal about child sex trafficking, including its pervasive growth online and the devastating impact this crime has on children and their families. We know that sex trafficking is a crime that takes place in nearly every community in the United States and increasingly children are sold for sex online on websites like Backpage.com.

    NCMEC receives reports of child sex trafficking through intakes of missing child cases, requests for analytical assistance, and reports to the CyberTipline, the reporting mechanism for child sexual exploitation crimes. In recent years, NCMEC has witnessed an increase in missing and exploited child cases involving the online trafficking of children for sex. In 2015, NCMEC assisted with approximately 10,000 reports regarding possible child sex trafficking, but we know this is only a small fraction of suspected child sex trafficking victims in this country.

    Even more concerning is that a majority of child sex trafficking cases reported to NCMEC involve ads posted on Backpage.com. More than seventy-one percent (71%) of all child sex trafficking reports submitted by members of the public to NCMEC relate to Backpage ads. We also have seen a disturbing trend of runaway children trafficked on Backpage.com. Today, when we are looking for a runaway child who we have reason to believe might be trafficked, Backpage.com is the first place we look for the child.

    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.

    NCMEC is proud to lend our support to this important resolution, and we hope the Senate's work can uncover more information regarding the use of online websites, such as Backpage.com, to traffic children. 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 tirelessly to halt the terrible tragedy of online child sex trafficking.

    Sincerely, John F. Clark, President and CEO.

    ____ Polaris, Washington, DC, March 16, 2016.

    Hon. Rob Portman, Chairman, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC.

    Hon. Claire McCaskill, Ranking Member, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC.

    Dear Chairman Portman and Ranking Member McCaskill: On behalf of Polaris, a non-profit organization working to end human trafficking and restore freedom to victims and survivors, I am writing to express my strong support for S. Res. 377, which directs the Senate Legal Counsel to bring a civil action to enforce a subpoena issued by your Subcommittee to the Chief Executive Officer of Backpage. I appreciate your tremendous work on this investigation and your leadership in the fight to ensure victims of child sex trafficking and their families receive justice.

    Since 2007, Polaris has operated the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), a 24-hour, national, confidential anti-trafficking hotline and resource center created and overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, in March 2013, Polaris launched our BeFree textline, allowing trafficking victims and concerned citizens to use text message to contact us for help.

    In 2015, the NHTRC received 1,383 cases involving sex trafficking of a minor, and Polaris received 22 cases through our BeFree textline involving sex trafficking of a minor. In these two sets, Backpage was specifically referenced in 222 cases. In total, the NHTRC has received 5,810 minor sex trafficking cases since 2007, BeFree has received 66 cases since 2013, and Backpage has been referenced in 595 cases.

    Backpage's business practices have long been a major source of concern for Polaris and the anti-trafficking community as a whole. We wholeheartedly support your Subcommittee's investigation into Backpage, and we think that S. Res. 377 is critical to ensuring Backpage is held accountable for its shocking, blatant disregard for your investigation. We are proud to stand with your Subcommittee in this fight to stop child sex trafficking, and we hope the Senate will unanimously pass S. Res. 377.

    Sincerely, Brad Myles, CEO.

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