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Fifty women say Salesforce helped traffickers exploit them

March 27, 2019

Fifty women who describe themselves as survivors of sex trafficking on the now-defunct Backpage.com web portal accuse Salesforce.com Inc. of profiting off each advertisement.

The women sued Salesforce on Tuesday in San Francisco state court, claiming billionaire Marc Benioff’s company knowingly supported Backpage by providing customized database tools to market and remarket prostitutes to “pimps, johns and traffickers who had been underusing its trafficking services.”

“Salesforce knew the scourge of sex trafficking because it sought publicity for trying to stop it," according to the complaint. “But, at the same time, this publicly traded company was, in actuality, among the vilest of rogue companies, concerned only with [its] bottom line."

Salesforce said it takes the allegations seriously, but declined to comment on the lawsuit. “We are deeply committed to the ethical and humane use of our products," a Salesforce spokeswoman said in a statement.

This isn’t the first time that Salesforce has sparked controversy because of its decision to do business with a particular customer. In June, more than 650 Salesforce employees signed a letter asking Benioff to reconsider a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection because of the Trump administration’s immigration policies at the time, including one that separated families apprehended crossing the border from Mexico.

Benioff refused to cancel the deal, arguing that Salesforce’s software wasn’t being used to perpetrate controversial policies.

The 50 women who filed Tuesday’s complaint, each identified only as Jane Doe, were sold for sex across the United States, including in the San Francisco Bay area, Cincinnati and Baltimore, according to the complaint. They allege the services provided by Salesforce to Backpage contributed to their being raped and abused.

Starting in 2013, when Backpage’s growth stalled, Salesforce took on the web portal as a client and provided tools to help manage its “trafficker and pimp database,” resulting in Backpage’s resurgence, according to the complaint. The lawsuit includes an order form billed to Backpage that’s dated in December 2016.

Salesforce, led by politically active Benioff, has frequently touted itself as a force for good through its tools and dedication to corporate philanthropy. The company is helping to sponsor an anti-human-trafficking event in April, and its not-for-profit arm spotlighted groups that worked on the front lines of the issue in 2017.

The CEO of Backpage pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy charges in three states three days after the site was permanently closed in April 2018. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that Carl Ferrer had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors against a pair of co-conspirators and controlling shareholders. Ferrer faces a prison sentence of up to five years.

Salesforce has grown rapidly over the past 20 years and generated $13 billion in annual revenue in fiscal 2019. The company accomplished that feat through efforts to make its tools appealing to a broad array of organizations, from small startups to the world’s largest corporations.

Salesforce employs more than 1,700 workers in Indianapolis, which serves as headquarters for the company's Marketing Cloud division.

Shares of San Francisco-based Salesforce fell 3.2 percent Wednesday morning, to $154.21 each.

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