By Kate Ryan
NEW YORK, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fifty women and girls have sued the software firm Salesforce for designing tools that helped traffickers sell them for sex on the classified ad site Backpage.com, their lawyer said on Wednesday.
The lawsuit claims that Salesforce profited from sex trafficking by creating customised data tools for Backpage, which was shut down in April 2018 by federal authorities following allegations that it primarily sold sex.
"With Salesforce's guidance, Backpage was able to use Salesforce's tools to market to new 'users' - that is, pimps, johns, and traffickers - on three continents," said the lawsuit, filed on Monday in California.
"Salesforce's data tools were actually providing the backbone of Backpage's exponential growth ... This publicly traded company was, in actuality, among the vilest of rogue companies, concerned only with their bottom line."
A spokeswoman for Salesforce said in emailed comments that the company did not comment on pending litigation.
"We are deeply committed to the ethical and humane use of our products and take these allegations seriously," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Salesforce, which is headquartered in San Francisco, brands itself as a socially responsible business, committed to uphold human rights and encourage its customers to act ethically.
The internet has made sex trafficking easier, and some analysts say Backpage accounted for 80 percent of online sex slavery in the United States including of under-age girls.
All of the plaintiffs in the case - aged between 12 and their mid-twenties - were exploited, raped and abused through Backpage after it became a client of Salesforce in 2013, said their lead attorney, Annie McAdams.
The lawsuit lists 14 services Salesforce provided Backpage, including managing marketing campaigns to traffickers and pimps and creating platforms to help the site find customers.
The trafficking survivors, identified in court documents as Jane Does for fear of retaliation, are seeking compensation for "catastrophic" damages, McAdams said, which include physical pain and mental anguish.
A key question in such cases is proving that a company knowingly facilitated the crime, said Bridget Carr, director of the University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic.
While Backpage's role in selling sex has been in the news for years, it is not yet clear whether Salesforce's services directly aided the trafficking of the women, she said.
Salesforce signed a contract with Backpage in 2013 despite well-publicised legal efforts across the United States to shut the site down, the suit said.
"Salesforce cannot deny knowing the problems with Backpage," said McAdams, adding that Salesforce renewed its contract with Backpage in 2017 for more than $291,000.
"The evidence is going to show in this case that Backpage would not have been able to grow without the support of Salesforce."
(Reporting by Kate Ryan; Editing by Katy Migiro. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate chenge. Visit www.trust.org)
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