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Five members of Congress who head anti-human-trafficking groups called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch a criminal investigation of after a trove of documents revealed that the website hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers and customers seeking sex. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire Mc Caskill (D-Mo.), who lead a subcommittee that has investigated Backpage since 2015, along with Sen. The committee wrote to Sessions saying that it had “determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that violations of law may have occurred.” The newly revealed documents, obtained through an unrelated lawsuit, show workers at Avion BPO in the Philippines focused on adding and promoting sexual ads. “This is an utter lie.” The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Portman, found in January that Backpage was removing offensive terms from its sex ads but allowing the ads, some with possible child-trafficking content, to remain posted.In some instances the workers used language including “Let a young babe show you the way” and “Little angel seeks daddy” in fake ads they posted on other sites to attract customers to Backpage.[Backpage has always claimed it doesn’t control sex-related ads.A group of advocacy organizations, including Consumer Watchdog, Deliver Fund, Faith & Freedom Coalition and The Rebecca Project for Justice, sent a letter to Google yesterday, asking it to “cease its campaign to blindly oppose necessary modifications in Section 230 that would allow such cynical businesses as to be held accountable for actively aiding and abetting child sex trafficking.” The missive, which is addressed to Alphabet CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt along with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, also name checks two “nonprofit recipients of Google’s largesse”: the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).Both of these organizations defend digital civil liberties like online privacy and net neutrality.
Backpage argues it is a passive carrier of "third-party content" and has no control of sex-related ads posted by pimps, prostitutes and even organized trafficking rings.
Backpage’s main defense of its actions rests on an obscure government provision: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Basically, this means that sites like Backpage (along with social networks like Facebook or Twitter) are not liable for what users post on their sites.
This loophole has been pretty successful for Backpage—while several state Supreme Courts have ruled that the site could in fact be held accountable for its content, the U. First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision, ruling that Backpage was immune from liability.
And according to a new campaign, Backpage has one other key ally in its fight against Section 230: Google.
The search engine supports the statute, mainly because it has benefited from it in cases where defendants claimed unsuccessfully that their search history was unflattering.