Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)
“Politicians love to grandstand ‘for the children,’ even when their policies destroy children’s lives,” said Nicholas Sarwark, Chair of the Libertarian Party, in response to a US Senate subcommittee’s dragging representatives of Backpage.com, a classified advertising website, into a hearing. On January 10, the senators succeeded in forcing Backpage to shut down the adult section of their website, and with it, a valuable resource for cracking down on child sex traffickers.
After Backpage won a lawsuit last year protecting their free speech rights, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), part of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, did an end run to circumvent the decision by subpoenaing Backpage executives.
In the hearing, PSI made a show of accusing Backpage of facilitating child traffickers, when in fact, the company has a long history of helping law enforcement rescue children, and arrest and successfully prosecute pimps who prostitute them. Employees of the FBI and police departments around the country have showered praise on Backpage for their valuable support.
U.S. senators used their subpeona power to prohibit part of Backpage’s website services, even though courts have consistently ruled that they are protected under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which grants immunity to owners of interactive websites for third-party content.
In 2016, Backpage won a legal victory in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against a county sheriff in Illinois. Sheriff Tom Dart had sent threatening letters to pressure credit card companies Visa and Mastercard to stop doing business with the website operator.
In 2012, legislatures in Washington, New Jersey, and Tennessee passed laws targeting Backpage, but federal courts enjoined each one as unconstitutional.
“We must remove prosecutorial immunity – in courts and in congress – for such blatant violations of existing First Amendment law and for creating a witch hunt to try to destroy legal businesses with malicious prosecution,” said Sarwark. “Ending this government abuse will allow services such as Backpage to continue to provide valuable protection services, sparing unfortunate children from the ravages of sex trafficking.”
“We also need to repeal all victimless crime laws,” he continued, “including laws against adult sex work, so there is less opportunity for abuse and exploitation, by the government or anybody else.”.
Backpage.com joins online advertiser Craigslist, which in 2010, also reluctantly bowed to government pressure by closing the erotic services section of its website.
It is well-known that shutting down one website to stop a particular activity doesn’t work because the same services will re-appear on other websites, domestic and abroad.
“This is all about politicians trying to win political capital while endangering the very children they claim to protect,” said Sarwark. “The consequences of driving adult websites underground or out of the country will be more violent crime, less ability for law enforcement to go after violent criminals, and a loss of American jobs.”
Among the senators who grilled Backpage at the PSI hearing was former California Attorney General and freshman Sen. Kamala Harris who, during her 2016 campaign, brought pimping charges against the current and former owners of Backpage.
Harris brought the charges, despite having previously admitted that doing so is unconstitutional. She and other state attorneys general had signed onto a letter asking Congress to change CDA Section 230 because it prevents state law enforcement agencies from prosecuting companies like Backpage.