Carl Ferrer, CEO of online sex-ads giant Backpage.com, refused to answer questions about his company’s screening policies Tuesday, drawing fire from members of Congress and a sharp rebuke from parents whose underage daughters were sold for sex on his website.
Mr. Ferrer, who answered a subpoena to testify to the Senate’s chief investigative committee, claimed both a First Amendment media free speech right as well as his Fifth Amendment right against incriminating himself in refusing to explain how ads for sex with children got posted, despite the company’s public claims that it tries to screen out illegal ads.
“After consultation with counsel, I decline to answer your question based on the rights provided by the First and Fifth amendments,” Mr. Ferrer said.
He and other company executives appeared a day after the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report accusing Backpage of sanitizing ads of offending words such as “Lolita,” “young,” “teen” and “little girl” — code for underaged girls — yet allowing the rest of the ads to appear.
Also testifying were the parents of two underage girls who were trafficked on Backpage. One woman spotted an ad selling her daughter and asked that it be taken down, but was rebuffed by the company. Another couple said their 15-year-old daughter, identified by the pseudonym “Natalie,” ran away from home and was then repeatedly sold for sex
Natalie’s mother, identified as “Nacole S.” during the testimony to protect the family’s privacy, blasted Mr. Ferrer for refusing to face the fire from the committee.
“Carl Ferrer is no warrior for free speech. He’s just another pimp,” she said.
Lawmakers said they would respect the Fifth Amendment and excused the witnesses, but not before forcing the executives to sit through an excruciating recounting of their website’s behavior.
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations said the company’s top lawyer admitted to Congress in 2015 that they sanitized the ads, but hid that information from both law enforcement and sexual crimes victims who had said the company was responsible for trafficking.
The committee report cited a 2011 test by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which placed eight ads for underaged girls, complete with pictures. In an internal email obtained by the investigation, Mr. Ferrer said the ads triggered an alert and some of them were removed within minutes, but he admitted they did not spot all eight ads.
The company also ordered employees to err on the side of customers buying ads, saying that ads should stay up unless there was clear evidence the person was a child.
“It put profits ahead of vulnerable women and children,” Mr. Portman said.
Senators made clear on Tuesday that they were only respecting the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment, not the First Amendment that the witnesses also claimed as a shield.
Backpage is currently battling in court to try to avoid having to turn over some of its documents, citing both attorney-client privileges and a First Amendment right as a media company.
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