Backpage.com, one of the world's largest classified ad websites and a frequent target in the political battle against sex trafficking, closed its adult ads section Monday in the United States, claiming to be the victim of a government witch hunt.
The extraordinary move came shortly after the release of a scathing U.S. Senate report that accused Backpage of hiding criminal activity by deleting terms from ads that indicated sex trafficking or prostitution, including of children.
The abrupt closure came on the eve of the scheduled testimony of Backpage's founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and the site's CEO, Carl Ferrer, before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs' subcommittee on investigations.
The Senate panel issued the report after an acrimonious investigation. Backpage balked at a subpoena to turn over company materials to investigators, but the panel secured a federal court order to force compliance.
The Senate committee's review of the company documents, totaling more than 1.1-million pages, found evidence that Backpage knowingly facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking, according to the report. The business was highly profitable and experienced explosive growth, from $5.3 million in gross revenue in 2008 to $135 million in 2014.
To keep problematic ads online, the company edited them. One moderator said he removed material that was obviously indicative of prostitution but the post remained published. According to the report, the moderator testified under oath: "[M]y responsibility was to make the ads OK to run live on the site, because having to get rid of the ad altogether was bad for business."
It was common knowledge at the company that ads in the adult section were for prostitution, one moderator said, adding that a co-worker used the site to procure prostitutes, according to the report.
"We reported the evidence that Backpage has been far more complicit in online sex trafficking than anyone previously knew," they said in a statement.
"Backpage's response wasn't to deny what we said. It was to shut down their site. That's not 'censorship' — it's validation of our findings."
By late Monday, visitors to Backpage saw "censored" tags in red font under the adult section's menu of escorts, body rubs and strippers. Other sections remained operative, including for cars, real estate and childcare.
Online, Backpage published full statements from the company as well as supporters who view government efforts to shutter the website as unlawful attempts to stifle free speech.
"Like the decision by Craigslist to remove its adult category in 2010, this announcement is the culmination of years of effort by government at various levels to exert pressure on Backpage.com and to make it too costly to continue," Backpage said.
The website also said that the end of its adult ads section would do little to end human trafficking.
Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, a Van Nuys-based nonprofit that rescues children from sex work, credited Backpage with helping detectives locate missing or exploited children and ultimately prosecute pimps. She lamented the end of the site as a "critical investigative tool."
"It's a sad day for America's children victimized by prostitution," Lee said in a statement.
The site has long positioned itself as a champion of online speech freedoms and has relied on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a federal statute that immunizes website operators from the content of users' ads.
A Sacramento County judge cited the law in December when he tossed out pimping charges filed against Lacey, Larkin and Ferrer by former state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. A new set of charges was filed in late December, accusing the trio of laundering earnings from escorts as well as pimping children and adult women.
In a separate statement, Lacey and Larkin congratulated their efforts to augment law that protects online speech and privacy rights, and recounted their years of legal battles, including the recent prosecution attempt by Harris.
The men said they intend to sue Harris, who has since been elected to the Senate, for bringing the case despite knowing it "had no basis in law."
Lacey and Larkin — the former owners of alternative weekly newspapers such as Phoenix New Times and the Village Voice — also said they sold their ownership interest in Backpage two years ago, contradicting the Senate report. The congressional investigation report states that Larkin and Lackey retain "significant financial and operational control over Backpage."
"Today, the censors have prevailed. We get it," the men said in their statement.
"But the shutdown of Backpage's adult classified advertising is an assault on the 1st Amendment. We maintain hope for a more robust and unbowed Internet in the future."
10:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background and minor editing.
8:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Sens. Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill.