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Investigations of Backpage prompt Missouri officials to file legislation, lawsuits

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley shares evidence included in a motion to dismiss Backpage's lawsuit against him.
File photo I Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley shares evidence included in a motion to dismiss Backpage's lawsuit against him.

A two-year federal investigation of Backpage.com, a website that frequently advertises commercial sex, led Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill to introduce legislation Tuesday. The bill, filed with bipartisan support, would make it illegal for websites to "knowingly  facilitate sex trafficking.”

McCaskill said Backpage.com appears to be actively involved in cultivating and publishing ads for minors engaged in commercial sex, a felony. The company's activities are detailed in a growing cadre of evidence released by federal investigators, uncovered in ongoing civil and criminal court cases and published by the Washington Post.

Authorities say prosecuting Backpage.com for illegally advertising commercial sex is difficult under exiting laws. The federal Communications Decency Act allows websites to host ads from other sources, as long as they remove the ones that are clearly illegal and refer them to police, something Backpage.com claims to do.

“Our investigation revealed that they were shaping ads here in the United States, which should blow away any immunity they’re entitled to,” McCaskill said. “The legislation we’ve introduced will keep anyone else from hiding behind this federal statute that Backpage has used so effectively.”

McCaskill’s office is sharing documents from the investigation with law enforcement officials throughout the country.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, released additional evidence from his office in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against him. Backpage.com filed suit against Hawley last month, objecting to his use of Missouri’s consumer laws to prosecute potential sex traffickers.  Investigations are being conducted by his office’s newly-established sex trafficking unit.

“We have gone to court already, asking the court to compel Backpage to produce the evidence," Hawley said. "They responded with this frivolous suit, which shows I think that we are on the right track. And we are going to continue to push forward until we get all of the facts.”

During a press conference, Hawley played the audio of a phone recording first published by the Washington Post. In it, a contractor for Backpage.com is heard encouraging a person who has allegedly advertised sex with a minor on a rival site, to post an ad for free on Backpage.com.

The Missouri Highway Patrol carried out raids on 13 massage parlors and five homes in the Springfield area last month, many of whom were advertised on Backpage.com, Hawley said.

Hawley said women were being held against their will and sold for sex. The number of victims recovered was not immediately available, but prosecutors charged nine individuals with operating a massage business without a state license.

Attorneys for Backpage.com did not immediately return a request for comment.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB