A contractor for the controversial classifieds website Backpage.com has been aggressively soliciting and creating sex-related ads, despite Backpage’s repeated insistence that it had no role in the content of ads posted on its site, according to a trove of newly discovered documents.
The documents show that Backpage hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers — and customers seeking sex — from sites run by its competitors. The spreadsheets, emails, audio files and employee manuals were revealed in an unrelated legal dispute and provided to The Washington Post.
Workers in the Philippine call center scoured the Internet for newly listed sex ads, then contacted the people who posted them and offered a free ad on Backpage.com, the documents show. The contractor’s workers even created each new ad so it could be activated with one click.
Workers also created phony sex ads, offering to “Let a young babe show you the way” or “Little angel seeks daddy,” adding photos of barely clad women and explicit sex patter, the documents show. The workers posted the ads on competitors’ websites. Then, when a potential customer expressed interest, an email directed that person to Backpage.com, where they would find authentic ads, spreadsheets used to track the process show.
For years, Backpage executives have adamantly denied claims made by members of Congress, state attorneys general, law enforcement and sex-abuse victims that the site has facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking. Backpage argues it is a passive carrier of “third-party content” and has no control of sex-related ads posted by pimps, prostitutes and even organized trafficking rings. The company contends it removes clearly illegal ads and refers violators to the police.
The discovery could be a turning point in the years-long campaign by anti-human trafficking groups, and Congress, to persuade Backpage to stop hosting prostitution ads, which many teenage girls have claimed were used to sell them for sexual exploitation. Lawsuits and criminal prosecutions of Backpage in the United States have nearly all failed because Backpage cites in its defense the federal Communication Decency Act, which grants immunity to websites that merely host or screen content posted by others.
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