U.S. Senate holds in contempt over sex trafficking ads

WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to hold classified ad website in contempt of Congress, invoking the measure for the first time in more than two decades amid allegations the site facilitates sex trafficking, especially of children.

The Senate voted 96-0 to hold Backpage in civil contempt after it did not comply with a subpoena to hand over documents explaining how it combats sex trafficking in ads on the adult section of its website. The site is the second-largest online classified ad service in the United States after Craigslist.

The move will allow Senate lawyers to bring a lawsuit in federal district court to force compliance with the subpoena and could set up a battle over free speech.

Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer could not be immediately reached for comment. In a statement, Steven Ross, a lawyer at Akin Group representing Backpage, said the Senate has attempted to wage an attack on the company’s free-speech rights as a publisher.

Ross said Backpage welcomed the Senate vote, arguing it would allow the firm to present its arguments before the courts.

The Senate vote was the first time it has issued contempt charges since 1995, when the chamber was investigating then-President Bill Clinton’s Whitewater real estate dealings.

The vote arose from a subpoena request from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which for months has asked Backpage to provide information on how the company screens postings for sex trafficking.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and the panel’s chairman, and Senator Claire McCaskill, the committee’s top Democrat, have repeatedly charged Backpage with impeding the congressional inquiry.

Portman on Thursday said Backpage’s First Amendment argument was “nonsense.” He added that his panel found evidence of the firm editing advertisements in an attempt to obscure sexual services for money.

“Backpage’s editing procedures, far from being an effective anti-trafficking measure, only served to sanitize the ads of illegal content to an outside viewer,” Portman said.

The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has found an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking over the last five years, an increase it has attributed to the Internet, according to Yiota Souras, the center’s general counsel. (Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Richard Cowan and Cynthia Osterman)