Senate files civil lawsuit over sex ads on Backpage.com

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WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate has filed a lawsuit to force classified advertising website Backpage.com to turn over documents about how it screens ads for possible sex trafficking.

Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Claire McCaskill of Missouri announced Tuesday that the Senate legal counsel filed a civil action in federal district court after the website failed to comply with a congressional subpoena over its screening practices. Portman is the Republican chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and McCaskill is the top Democrat.

The Senate voted earlier this month to hold the website in contempt, the first time in 20 years the chamber has done so.

“We have given Backpage.com 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.”

A lawyer for Backpage.com has said Congress cannot compel an online publisher of third-party advertisements to produce the documents under the First Amendment.

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 the Subcommittee believes is to conceal illegality. The subpoena seeks more information about that practice.

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