Apple isn’t the only tech company embroiled in a debate with the federal government — you can now add Backpage.com to the growing list of industry firms displeased with the way the folks in Washington are interpreting constitutional rights. And needless to say, lawmakers are none too pleased about it.
On Thursday, the Senate voted unanimously to hold the Craigslist competitor in contempt of Congress, the first time these charges have been issued in over two decades. The decision comes after Backpage consistently refused to turn over business documents that could help law enforcement officials catch child-sex traffickers. And while the specific issue at hand has drawn criticism for Backpage from across the board, the company notes that a broader issue is at stake here — First Amendment rights.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, up to 71 percent of suspected child trafficking reports involved Backpage, which makes the web company a critical piece of the puzzle in officials’ attempts to bring these sex offenders to justice. But back in November, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer refused to comply with a subpoena requiring him appear at the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, and since then the situation has only escalated.
According to Backpage, as an ads publisher, the company and its users are protected by free speech rights. Backpage “looks forward to a proper consideration of the important First Amendment constitutional issues by the judiciary — the branch of government charged with protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans,” said Steve Ross, an attorney for Backpage in a statement. Government efforts to “investigate or attack publishers, including those who publish on the Internet, must comply with the limits placed on the government by the First Amendment,” he continued.
But this refusal to cooperate has clearly incensed the Senate, whose decision to charge Backpage with contempt marks just the seventh time the legislative body has ever levied this power. But contentious or contemptible as it may be, it looks like this debate isn’t going away anytime soon.