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Backpage.com shuts down ads, executives refuse to testify

This decision by Backpage follows a report presented by Ohio Sen. Portman which says the website knowingly concealed evidence of criminality

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) - Backpage.com shut down its adult personal ads and executives at the advertising website refused to testify before Congress on Tuesday.

Backpage is an online classified that includes an adult section that has links for escorts, body rubs, strippers and strip clubs. Each of those sections now has a red 'censored' on it.

The website has been under scrutiny for years over claims it knowingly advertised sex trafficking of adults and kids.

Several local prostitution arrests stemmed from ads on Backpage.com answered by undercover officers.

"When we did our sting to show what kind of demand we had in the area, we received between 50 and 60 calls in one hour. So Backpage was a big thing around here, just like it is around the country," said Major Jeff Allen, with the Mahoning County Sheriff's Office.

One case involved an arrest in Beaver Township where a woman was arrested for telling an officer, who she thought was a client, to bring cash and nachos to their meeting.

"It's been a big problem with the hotels we have in Austintown and Boardman," Allen said. "People are utilizing Backpage to advertise adult services and if you look at it, you look at it daily, you'll see 50 to 60 different ads a day."

Four top executives and the company's lawyer told a Senate panel Tuesday that they were invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

A Senate report accuses the site of systematically editing its "adult" ads to remove words that indicate sex trafficking.

Full Backpage.com Senate report (PDF)

Ohio Senator Rob Portman said the website knowingly concealed evidence of criminality, and facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking.

"These are not the practices of an 'ally' in the fight against human trafficking," he said. "These are the practices of a corporation intent on profiting from human trafficking - and human misery - and profit they have, at the expense of countless innocent victims."

The Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report Monday, claiming up to 80 percent of the site's ads are edited to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.

Portman also said the report found Backpage made $150 million annually and is a market leader in commercial sex advertising.

Backpage has denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court won't hear an appeal from three sex trafficking victims who accuse Backpage.com of helping to promote the exploitation of children.

The justices on Monday left in place a lower court ruling that said federal law shields Backpage from liability because the site is just hosting content created by users.

The website's founders told the LA Times:

Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it. But the shutdown of Backpage's adult classified advertising is an assault on the First Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed internet in the future.

Critics are using #freespeech in protest, saying this will push adult workers further into the shadows and into more dangerous situations.

"Backpage has not denied a word of these findings," Portman said. "Instead, several hours after the report was issued yesterday afternoon, the company announced the closure of its adult section - claiming 'censorship.' But that's not censorship. That's validation of our findings."

Polaris, a leading group in the fight against human trafficking, released this statement about the decision:

A monumental step in the fight against sex trafficking in America has been achieved now that Backpage.com has shuttered the adult escort section of its website. While long overdue, we strongly hope this is a permanent action. We applaud the many leaders who have worked towards this moment for years

Allen said people will always find another way, but law enforcement will catch up with it.

"It will hurt them for right now but eventually they will find a different way, and we'll have to catch on to that."

He said it takes a team of federal, state and local law enforcement to keep up with sex trafficking.

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