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Documents Show Controls Sex-Related Ads


The website has been controversial for years. It's been the subject of lawsuits. And the National Association of Attorneys General calls it a hub for human trafficking.

TOM JACKMAN: It's a classified ad website just like Craigslist.

SHAPIRO: That's Tom Jackman of The Washington Post.

JACKMAN: But it's also a place that has ads for adult services. Some might say prostitution.

SHAPIRO: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says almost three quarters of the child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public involve ads from Backpage. An investigative piece out today by Tom Jackman and a Washington Post colleague describes documents that show the website seeking out paying advertisers who sell sex. When I spoke with Jackman earlier today, he told me has stayed out of trouble up until now by saying they are not actively involved in the content on their site.

JACKMAN: They cite a law that was passed in 1996 called the Communications Decency Act which says if you're a website and you are merely hosting content - you're not creating the content; you're merely the bulletin board - you're not liable for the content that's posted on your site by third parties.

SHAPIRO: So these documents that The Post has obtained shine a new light on Backpage's claims that they have nothing to do with this. What do the documents show?

JACKMAN: The documents show that they use a company in the Philippines to actively solicit - we'll call them advertisers - sex advertisers, people who have posted ads on other sites. They make a copy of that ad and recreate it in the Backpage template. We'd like to offer you the same ad on Backpage, and if you let me email you a link, I can show you because we've already created it for you - what your ad will look like on Backpage. And with one click, you can be there.

SHAPIRO: How does this change our understanding of Backpage's role in the sex trafficking business?

JACKMAN: Well, this would seem to be contradictory to the argument they've made for years and years that, we're simply a host; we're a passive vessel here that - you know, that people come to. And they post on our website, but we don't dictate the content. But here they are seemingly creating the content.

SHAPIRO: You showed some of these documents to the company and asked for a response. What did they say?

JACKMAN: They declined to comment. But they've made arguments in the past which have carried the day legally that this is protected content under the First Amendment, that even if they are copying from another site, they're merely copying, and that's protected and that they aren't breaking any laws by what they're doing. Their content may be offensive to some. But it's the Internet, and it should remain free.

SHAPIRO: What about members of Congress who have been going after Backpage for years? How did they respond to these documents?

JACKMAN: They felt like this is another step in their push to try to get some control over this. They want to amend the Communications Decency Act so that there's some way that the Internet can still be free and yet there can be some way to protect children from being trafficked. There are some very powerful First Amendment forces out there who want to keep the Internet untethered, untouched, unedited. And so they would like to use this as further ammunition to try to amend the Communications Decency Act.

SHAPIRO: Tom Jackman of the Washington Post, thank you very much.

JACKMAN: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRETTY LIGHTS' "REEL 6 BREAK 4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.