More than 50 women have filed suit against Salesforce, an online customer management relationship provider, alleging that the company’s data tools helped facilitate sex trafficking on the now-defunct website Backpage.
The women, known only as Jane Does, are accusing the company of facilitating sex trafficking because Salesforce “designed and implemented a heavily customized enterprise database tailored for Backpage’s operations, both locally and internationally,” despite the company publicly touting its commitment to fighting sex trafficking on social media.
“The evidence in this case is astounding,” the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Annie McAdams, told Rolling Stone. “[Salesforce] knew who Backpage was, yet they continued to take Backpage’s money, and they helped Backpage become a $500 million company that openly prostituted people.”
— Salesforce (@salesforce) January 20, 2017
The lawsuit also accuses Salesforce and its CEO Marc Benioff of publicly demonstrating a commitment to fighting sex trafficking, while simultaneously helping to build Backpage’s infrastructure. The basis for this argument appears to be a 2017 blog post by Salesforce program architect Phil Bennett, in which he describes a 2015 trip to India on an anti-trafficking expedition with Effect.org.
“It’s not enough to say that [fighting sex trafficking] is important,” said McAdams. “You have to have policies and procedures within your technology company to prevent things like this from happening.”
A rep for Salesforce did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but told CNBC, “We are deeply committed to the ethical and humane use of our products and take these allegations seriously.” They declined to comment on the specific lawsuit.
A classifieds website similar to Craigslist, Backpage was perhaps best known for its adult ads section. A Senate investigation accused Backpage of knowingly facilitating illegal sex trafficking and underage prostitution, prompting the website to shut down its adult ads section in 2017.
At the time, independent sex workers protested the move, with many arguing that those seeking underage or nonconsensual sex workers constituted only a small minority of the site’s patrons and that Backpage provided a safe resource for them to advertise their services and vet clients. Many argued that the closure of Backpage, as well as the subsequent passage of the anti-online sex trafficking acts SESTA/FOSTA, would put them at increased risk by driving them further underground, thus preventing them from being able to independently vet potential clients. Nonetheless, the federal government seized the website and shut it down in 2018, days before SESTA/FOSTA were signed into law.
McAdams, the lawyer for the Jane Does, has a history of going after large tech platforms for allegedly facilitating sex trafficking. She says she currently has four suits pending against Facebook, including a lawsuit on behalf of a Texas human trafficking survivor, alleging that Facebook provided “an unrestricted platform to stalk, exploit, recruit, groom, and extort children into the sex trade.” She refers to this suit as “the first time to see any attempt to hold facilities that aid in human trafficking accountable.”