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Civil contempt charges for Backpage in Senate's child prostitution probe

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

(Read caption) Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., ranking member on the Senate Permanent subcommittee on Investigations, questions witnesses during the subcommittee's hearing on “adequacy of the Department of Health and Human Services’ efforts to protect unaccompanied alien children from human trafficking,” Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Looking on is Senate subcommittee on Investigations Chairman Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

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The Senate voted 96-0 on Thursday to pursue civil contempt charges for Backpage, one of the country's largest classified ads sites, for refusing to appear at a child sex trafficking hearing in November and turn over requested business documents.

As many as 71 percent of suspected child trafficking reports involved Backpage, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, making it a key player in officials' attempts to track pimps as they take victims off the streets and the web. Web-based prostitution is easier for pimps to disguise, helping them evade law enforcement, but advocates believe the right precautions could make a significant dent in the trafficking business.

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CEO Carl Ferrer failed to appear at a November hearing before the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which had subpoened him to study whether Backpage's "moderation" safety protocols were sufficient to protect minors.

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"The aim of my and Senator McCaskill's investigation is straightforward: We want to understand how lawmakers, law enforcement, and even private businesses can more effectively combat this serious crime that thrives on an online black market," Chairman Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) told Congress on Thursday. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is the Subcommittee's Ranking Member.

The Senate has not voted to authorize civil contempt proceedings since 1993, during the investigation into sexual harrassment claims against Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR). Sen. Packwood resigned in September 1995. 

"If the Senate now votes, as Backpage.com has long requested, to submit the issue to the courts, it will finally be authorizing the precise course of action the company has been urging for nine months," company attorney Steve Ross, of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, told Politco ahead of the vote.

The popular site has argued that, as the publisher of ads, it is protected under the First Amendment. In 2012, it blocked the implementation of a Washington state law to require that sites verify advertisers' age, claiming that it violated free speech and the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Backpage also claims to have protection procedures to screen out potential traffickers, but has refused to hand over all requested documents about those practices.

A report from the Senate Subcommittee alleges that Backpage edits some ad content, which "likely served to remove evidence of the illegality of the underlying transaction." The Subcommittee also accused the site of changing its merchant code to allow users to complete transactions, after a financial institution concerned that the site hosted traffickers tried to block them.

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"With the explosion in the sale of kids for sex online, it is clear that more kids are at risk today than ever before," Ernie Allen, then the President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) told the House Committee on the Judiciary in a 2010 hearing. 

Mr. Allen estimated that 100,000 minors per year are trafficked for sex, although the number could be much higher. More than half are runaways, homeless youth, and children kicked out of their homes, he said. Half of all off-street prostitutes are under 18, according to the Center, as well as one third of all street prostitutes. 

But tracking trafficked minors remains difficult. On average, only 1 to 2 percent of all arrests for prostitution and commercialized vice involve juveniles, according to the Department of Justice

For years, advocacy groups have pushed classified sites to double-down on safety rules. Craigslist shuttered its "adult services" section in 2010, with the warning that it might push pimps to use less-regulated sites, where it would be more difficult to track child prostitution.

A wide majority of suspected child trafficking cases reported to NCMEC involved Backpage, the Center's general counsel Yiota Souras testified in November.

"Technology has fundamentally changed how children are trafficked," Ms. Souras told the Subcommittee. "Today, an adult can shop from their home, office or hotel room, even on a cellphone, to buy a child for sex."

Offine, however, some see progress in a fundamental shift of thinking about child prostitutes: the push to view them as victims, not criminals. 

As of today, 34 states have passed Safe Harbor laws to protect trafficking victims under 18, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-slavery nonprofit. 

Most trafficked children are introduced to the illegal practice at a young age — between 12 and 14 for girls, and 11 and 13 for boys — and come from difficult backgrounds that make them vulnerable to pimps' emotional 'grooming', advocates say. Once in the sex trade, the average life expectancy is seven years, Maria Clara Rodriguez, the outreach and education supervisor at Kristi House, an advocacy center in Miami, told CNN. 

"The girls don't see themselves as victims. 'No, this is my boyfriend; we are going to get married; he promised me the world.' They believe that," Ms. Rodriguez said. 

But ultimately, as former NCMEC President Allen emphasized in his testimony, the goal is to stop ads from being posted in the first place.

"The goal is to make it riskier, less profitable and more difficult – to destroy the business model for those who sell children for sex," he said.