Frustrated lawmakers are taking an unusual approach to stop a website they say is allowing sex trafficking to occur.
On Wednesday the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to hold Backpage.com, an advertising website, in contempt of Congress.
“I am disgusted that any company would not participate and cooperate in an investigation into the trafficking of children,” said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.
McCaskill and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman co-sponsored the resolution after they said the company refused to comply with a subpoena seeking documents about how it screens ads for warning signs of sex trafficking.
The resolution passed the committee unanimously and will now head to the full Senate for a vote.
What is Backpage.com?
Backpage.com is a classified website which advertises escorts, body rubs and other "adult services." But law enforcement across the country say the site is becoming a hub for human trafficking.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately 71 percent of all sexually trafficked children are connected or linked to Backpage.com.
“Someone can go on their phone and order a person like they can order a pizza. They can choose specific things about age, about looks, about ethnicity,” said September Trible.
Trible is the executive director of Restoration House, which helps victims of sexual trafficking.
“When these ads are posted online with pictures of the girls, the assumption is that they want to be there, that this is their choice. Most don’t realize that very young girls are being sold online,” she said. “It’s not something that they dream of at all.”
What led to the resolution?
McCaskill and Portman launched a Senate probe last year, which revealed hundreds of cases of sex trafficking were linked to Backpage.com, including cases involving children.
In November, the lawmakers subpoenaed the website’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, to testify before the panel. His seat sat empty as he did not show up.
“They're not facing accountability for the choices they are making as a company that contributes to the demand of our children being sold and bought like merchandise,” said Trible. “It’s just so easy and anonymous. I think that is the thing that really drives the success of online pages that sell commercial sex.”
The resolution now goes to the full Senate for a vote. If passed, it will be the first time in decades the Senate has found a private company in contempt.
If this happens, the chamber’s legal counsel would file a civil action against Backpage.com, requesting a judge’s order to enforce the committee’s subpoena.
The order could also result in hefty fines and potential jail time for the website’s CEO.
Backpage.com declined to comment on pending litigation.