With Allies Like These, Who Needs Enemies?

Backpage.com, the site owned by Village Voice Media that posts adult services ads online, has claimed it is "a critical ally" in the fight against child sex trafficking. So why is it fighting a Washington law that makes it a felony to advertise the sexual services of juveniles?
08/02/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2012

Backpage.com, the site owned by Village Voice Media that posts adult services ads online, has claimed it is "a critical ally" in the fight against child sex trafficking. So why is it fighting a Washington law that makes it a felony to advertise the sexual services of juveniles?

A judge heard arguments in the case recently.

In recent months, 50 attorneys general, almost 50 big city mayors, 19 Senators, clergy leaders, and more than a quarter million petitioners on change.org have called on Backpage.com to stop posting erotic services ads, out of concern for minors who are prostituted via the site. At least 150 cases involving minors sold through Backpage.com have been counted, and that represents only situations where someone has been arrested, a tiny fraction of the problem, according to Washington law enforcement officials.

In January, Washington State passed a law making it a felony to advertise a child for sex, but Backpage filed motions to keep it from taking effect. Tennessee has passed a similar law, and Backpage.com, which earns approximately $24.8 million annually from its erotic ads, filed suit to stop that law, too. New York and New Jersey are considering similar legislation.

Under the Washington law, print and online publishers are required to verify that a person whose services are advertised is 18 or over, as confirmed by legal documents like birth certificates or drivers licenses.

"Attorneys for Backpage claim to be allies in the fight against human trafficking, yet they've filed a lawsuit to stop a law shielding kids from being sold for sex," said Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. "Among several claims in their lawsuit, Backpage tries to hide behind the Constitution. But commercial sex acts with kids are illegal and ads for such crimes are obviously not protected by our founding documents."

I run shelters for homeless young people. I know what our counselors hear from young people who have been the victims of human trafficking. I have co-written a book including a chapter about a trafficked young woman whose pimps drugged her and forced her to have sex with up to nine men a day. We see the broken spirits and bodies, the post-traumatic stress, the guilt and shame, the despair. We know that pimps target foster kids, kids in our shelters and other homeless kids, who often have scant family ties and few prospects. Almost half of the young women in some shelters have been sexually abused, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. And even if they manage to escape from their pimps, they need a lot of counseling, education, and job training to reach the bright futures they deserve.

I understand that Backpage.com should be commended for reporting at least 2,600 cases of suspected child prostitution to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which reports them to law enforcement officials. And yes, if Backpage.com closes its ads, the pimps will likely just find other sites for advertising their sex slaves, sites that won't call up the NCME.

But Backpage.com has acknowledged that the company finds more than 400 ads every month that may include minors, and the number may be far greater. Please note: Backpage.com ratted out the posts, but still left them on their site, according to CNN. So don't tell us how your company is the champion of possible trafficking victims when you leave their ads up for sex abusers to thumb through, thereby facilitating child rape.

Yes, it's rape if you're too young to give consent. And it's rape if you're beaten, threatened, or fed drugs so as not to escape more rapes. Girls are told to lie about their ages if they're arrested. They are told their sisters will be pimped out if they talk to anyone but a john. This has to stop. As Mr. McKenna noted in a recent blog post:

There's an easy solution if Backpage executives really want to prove they're allies in the fight against human trafficking: end adult services ads, which are, by the way, for services illegal in every state. However, we recognize that Backpage executives are hesitant to sacrifice profits in order to safeguard human trafficking victims. But at the same time, they shouldn't lie to the public by claiming to be an "ally in the fight against human trafficking."

Backpage.com has argued that there is no "silver bullet" to solve the problem, and if there were, the company would sure use it. But, we contend, there are reasonable steps to take, and they are being taken.

Just ask Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who refused to allow city advertisements to appear in the Seattle Weekly, owned by Village Voice Media, until some day in the future when the company tightens up its policies and sells ads only to people who came to the office in person, with government-issued identification showing they were 18 or older. Yes, maybe there'd be fewer ads, but cry me a river. Fewer kids would be exploited.

According to Mr. McKenna, the Seattle Weekly follows these procedures for its print ads, but Backpage refuses to do so online. In fact, Carl Ferrer, the company's vice president, told Mayor McGinn that checking ages in person is "utterly impractical" and "highly problematic for national websites." No one ever said silver bullets were easy.

Backpage claims the Washington law conflicts with the Communications Decency Act, which prevents online service providers from being liable for third-party online postings. It also claims the law's wording is too vague to be enforceable, and notes that the Internet can't be regulated on a state-by-state basis.

But Backpage.com can't hide behind the Communications Decency Act, because that act does not protect violators of federal criminal law. And we believe Backpage.com is violating the Trafficking Victims Protect Act by advertising the sexual services of children. If the site simply verified that its adult services ads actually advertise ADULTS instead of children, they could carry on without a legal battle. In addition, Mr. McKenna argues that the Communications Decency Act can protect a company from being sued, but can't be used to prevent a state criminal law from being enforced.

As the Seattle Times noted in an editorial that Strategy for Free Press, which it calls the nation's largest digital-rights and media-reform organization, has shot down Backpage's argument and holds that free speech is no defense for child sexual exploitation.

So don't pretend you're an ally if you're a big part of the problem. It's more important to protect young people than to save a company's bottom line. Especially when that bottom line continues to grow, off the backs of children.