As Hawley spoke in St. Louis, Missouri U.S Senator Claire McCaskill and a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation in Washington to ensure justice for sex trafficking victims. Yet they got the charges dismissed, successfully arguing that an act of Congress shielded online publishers who run ads from third parties.
The bill, titled the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, would amend the Communications Decency Act.
But if passed, the law likely will affect many sites other than Backpage, according to Internet law expert Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University. The Communications Decency Act is a well-intentioned law, but it was never meant to help protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us.
He says the evidence his office has also uncovered shows that Backpage has contracted with an off-shore firm to help promote illegal trafficking activities. "The search terms used by Backpage to identify and scrub posts for this process highlight the depraved nature of the "services" that Backpage actively concealed, including numerous buzzwords associated with sex trafficking of minors".
But Portman and McCaskill led an investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that concluded Backpage helped traffickers - many of them pimps victimizing runaway girls - avoid detection while assuring the website kept raking in millions in revenue.
The findings were consistent with investigations by news media including the ABC News program Nightline.
Hawley launched an investigation of the company this year and in May issued civil investigative demands seeking documents from Backpage, which hasn't yet complied.
Backpage.com has always been labelled by authorities as an online brothel. But it said the investigation was primarily meant to intimidate it into going dark.
In January, Backpage shuttered its "adult" ads section, which observers said mainly contained prostitution ads. "We've got a lot of people addicted to opioids... some of those are girls and women who end up getting into this sex trafficking dependency, and this is an attempt to pass a sensible law that allows these girls and women and their families to be able to get justice finally", he said.
Some of the biggest web companies have already come out against the bill. "In December, the president signed legislation into law that included authorizing language for the initiative", officials said. The lawmakers who unveiled the measure refer specifically to Backpage, stating, "For too long, courts around the country have ruled that websites like Backpage.com can continue to facilitate illegal sex trafficking online with no repercussions".
Hawley's 34-page motion, part of nearly 400 pages of evidence submitted to the court Tuesday, states that substantial and compelling evidence shows a direct link between Backpage and the sex industry. But the rights of publishers are not absolute, and as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986, the fact that a bookstore was in front of a NY brothel did not mean the premises couldn't be ordered closed. The center said that 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives each year involve ads on Backpage. Or will the bill reach other online services?