Hawley puts Backpage.com in crosshairs of human trafficking fight

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ST. LOUIS - Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced he is taking legal action regarding Backpage.com, a website accused by some of helping facilitate human trafficking.

At a press conference in St. Louis on Tuesday, Hawley said he has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Backpage to block an investigation by the attorney general. The court documents Hawley filed included new evidence he claimed shows Backpage is directly involved in human trafficking.

“This is my message to Backpage: the truth cannot be stopped,” Hawley said.

In May, Hawley launched an investigation against the website after reviewing evidence that indicated Backpage was involved in promoting illegal trafficking on its website.

On July 11, Backpage fired back by filing a federal complaint, saying Hawley’s investigation was in “bad faith.”

“That lawsuit is meritless. It is a shameless attempt to stop our investigation and keep my office and the people of Missouri from getting the truth about Backpage,” Hawley said.

According to the court documents, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate concluded Backpage deliberately hid the sexual exploitation of children by hiding words that would be red flags, such as “Lolita,” “rape” and “little girl.”

The documents also point to Backpage hiring “offshore digital consulting firm” Avion, a company based in the Philippines, to help the website profit from trafficking activity.

Hawley said Backpage worked with this contractor to re-profit from illegal sex trafficking by encouraging traffickers to stop advertising their illegal activities on competitor websites and advertise on Backpage's site.

During the conference, Hawley also played an audio clip of a Backpage contractor and the author of an ad for human trafficking.

“You can begin to see why Backpage has been so eager to make sure that none of this evidence sees the light of day,” Hawley said. “But we are not going to stop.”

Hawley called for Backpage to come forward and tell the truth.

“I can promise you this, I am not going to stop until we get it,” he said.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill has been going after Backpage and its alleged complicity with human trafficking for a number of years.

On Tuesday, McCaskill and a group of bipartisan colleagues made their own announcement about a plan to introduce legislation called the "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act." They also want to clarify the Communications Decency Act to make sure victims of sex trafficking would receive justice.

“That’s what this bipartisan bill is all about,” McCaskill said, "better protecting Missouri’s families from sex trafficking by making clear to any company considering going into business with sexual predators, that the law won’t protect them from responsibility.”