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Senators blast website over sex ads

WASHINGTON - Senate lawmakers are accusing the classified advertising website Backpage.com of failing to cooperate in a probe into online sex trafficking.

The Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday voted to hold Backpage.com in civil contempt for failing to comply with a congressional subpoena into how it screens ads for possible sex trafficking.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri sponsored the resolution after they said the company refused to comply with a subpoena last year. It would allow the committee to go to court to try and force Backpage.com to turn over documents about its screening practices.

"We began this bipartisan investigation over nine months ago to tackle the growing problem of sex trafficking on the Internet. We have given Backpage.com every opportunity to comply with a lawful subpoena, but they have continued to stonewall," said Portman and McCaskill in a joint statement. "Backpage.com's ongoing obstruction of this investigation will not be tolerated. It is vital that Congress learns how human trafficking occurs on the Internet and what can be done to stop it."

In a report, the Senate panel said "hundreds" of reported cases of underage sex trafficking have been linked with Backpage.com. The committee subpoenaed Backpage.com as part of a probe into the company's approach to fighting online sex trafficking, among other information.

"Backpage refuses to comply with the subpoena," said the report, alleging that as of 2103 more than 80 percent of Backpage's revenue came from online sex ads in the U.S. "It claims that the First Amendment's protection for free speech entitles it to ignore the subcommittee's compulsory process on the ground that it is a publisher of commercial advertising. That is wrong."

Steven Ross, an attorney for Backpage.com and a partner at Akin Gump, said the Internet company welcomes a judicial review of the 2015 subpoena. In a statement, he noted that Backpage.com and the Senate panel disagree over how the First Amendment applies to efforts by lawmakers to force online publishers of third-party ads to produce documents.

"The company, which recently prevailed before the Seventh Circuit in a case that presented many of the same online free speech issues, looks forward to a proper consideration of these important First Amendment constitutional issues by the judiciary -- the branch of government charged with protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans," he said.

The full Senate must vote on the resolution to hold Backpage.com in contempt. Senate approval would mark the first time in two decades the chamber has voted to hold someone in contempt.