WASHINGTON (AP) — Classified website Backpage.com closed its adult ad section Monday night and replaced it with a red “censored” sign that protests what it calls “unconstitutional government censorship.”
The move comes the same day a Senate subcommittee released a report that accused Backpage of concealing evidence of criminal activity by systematically editing its “adult” ads to remove words that indicate sex trafficking. The report cites internal documents showing that 70-80% of the ads are edited to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.
The report also says that despite public claims to the contrary, the “true beneficial owners of the company” are CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey. The report says the men concealed their ownership interest through “a complex chain of domestic and international shell companies.”
Critics say the website has become an increasingly popular vehicle for commercial sexual exploitation. Senate investigators have called Backpage a market leader in sex advertising and it has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking.
Lawyers for the website have said the company does more than any other online classified site to prevent the trafficking of minors.
The red “censored” signs posted Monday night urge readers to “protect Internet free speech” and contact advocacy groups that support Internet privacy. The site also asked readers to use social media to support #freespeech and donate to groups that rescue children from prostitution.
Last month, a California judge rejected pimping charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, citing federal free speech laws. California officials have said they intend to pursue new charges against the company based on new evidence.
Prosecutors have alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage’s revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.