WASHINGTON – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp blasted the CEO of Backpage.com on Thursday after he failed to show up for a Senate subcommittee hearing focused on how the website has become an online hub for sex trafficking.
Heitkamp, D-N.D., highlighted during the hearing cases of child sex trafficking in Minot, N.D., and Moorhead that involved online sex ads on Backpage.
"In North Dakota, this issue has hit us, and it has hit us hard," said Heitkamp, a member of the Senate subcommittee. "Because Backpage.com allows it to be invisible."
Representatives for Backpage, which has recently seen a jump in North Dakota sex ads, have argued that the site is responsible about the ads it hosts by reporting possible cases of sex trafficking to law enforcement and cooperating with investigations.
But critics say Backpage does not do enough to prevent the sale of children for sex, prompting the subcommittee to launch an investigation.
Backpage CEO John Ferrer was subpoenaed to testify at the hearing, but his lawyers first said he planned to plead the fifth amendment and later said he was on an international business trip, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, subcommittee chairman.
Heitkamp said Ferrer's failure to show up, as well as the company's failure to comply with subpoenas for documents, shows that Backpage is not interested in working with law enforcement and advocates to deter sex trafficking.
"We don't have a partner there. We have somebody who, I believe, is not participating in solving this problem, but in fact capitalizing and becoming filthy rich," Heitkamp said. "And I use the word filthy honestly."
Backpage had $135 million in net revenues in 2014, according to the subcommittee's investigation. One industry analyst said $8 out of every $10 spent on online sex ads in the U.S. in 2013 went to Backpage, Portman said.
Backpage has been linked to numerous sex trafficking investigations in the region, including two involving children that Heitkamp referenced during the hearing.
Minot police rescued a 14-year-old Las Vegas girl from sex traffickers in April after her mother discovered the missing girl being advertised for sex on Backpage. Police in Moorhead rescued a 13-year-old trafficking victim from a motel in June 2014 after responding to a suspicious Backpage ad.
Backpage makes it easier to sell a child online than it does to sell a motorcycle or a pet, testified Yiota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The organization has unsuccessfully pushed Backpage to require an email address or phone number to post an online escort ad as it does for other types of ads, Souras said.
More than 70 percent of suspected child sex trafficking cases reported to the center are related to Backpage, she said. Yet the website does not always remove sex ads from its site even when parents of a missing child ask to have ads taken down, Souras testified.
A Forum News Service analysis of Backpage ads in fall 2014 showed that North Dakota frequently had 150 or more online escort ads every day on the website, with Oil Patch cities Minot and Williston mentioned most often.
On Thursday, North Dakota had more than 70 new online ads for female escorts posted on Backpage, with Fargo mentioned most often.
"We have seen a dramatic and pervasive increase in sex trade advertisements in North Dakota," Heitkamp said in an interview following the hearing.
Heitkamp said she's working toward making law changes to criminalize the relationship that exists between those who profit from sex trafficking and those who profit from the advertising.
"Obviously Backpage is the biggest offender right now," she said. "But as long as there's demand out there, we've got to be prepared for the next iteration."
Committee members called Ferrer's failure to show up "extraordinary" and said it may justify referral to the Department of Justice for criminal contempt, an action the committee has not taken in 30 years, according to Portman.
"If Backpage thinks they're going to go quietly into the night, they are sadly mistaken," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.