Women and Children for Sale: Brought to You by Backpage.com

For those unfamiliar with Backpage.com, it is a classified advertising website offering a variety of listings including everything from used cars and real estate to job openings. In fact, it is the second largest classified ads website on the Internet, just behind Craigslist. However, many have never even heard of Backpage.com. This is surprising and I can only speculate as to the reasons why this is, but I will give you this piece of information and let you draw your own conclusions: Backpage.com holds 80% of the Internet sex ad market.[1] The website earns more than $22 million a year from prostitution ads[2] and because Craigslist removed their “adult” section in 2010[3] the majority of Internet prostitution, and its corollary—sex trafficking—is facilitated by Backpage.com.[4]

A police detective who works mainly prostitution and sex trafficking cases once told me that the reason no one knows about Backpage.com is because it is rarely used by the everyday American. Even the legitimate ads on the site, such as ads for cars or houses, are usually being used by the pimps, drug dealers, and gang members who are aware of the website for its more nefarious ads. He called it the “Craigslist for criminals.”

Backpage.com claims it discourages illegal activity, removes illegal ads, and reports sex trafficking, especially domestic minor sex trafficking, to the proper authorities. But many nongovernmental organizations, law enforcement, and victims of sex trafficking disagree.[5] For instance, a 2011 open letter to Backpage.com signed by 51 state attorney generals explains that, “The prominence of illegal content on Backpage.com conflicts with the company’s representations about its content policies,” and that the “stated representations about the site are in direct conflict with the reality of Backpage’s business model. . . .”[6] And the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the organization Backpage claims to partner with in reporting trafficking, has come out and explained how insincere Backpage’s efforts truly are.

Victims advertised on Backpage.com in several states have tried to Backpage.com should be held responsible for facilitating enslavement and sexual exploitation in order to make a profit.hold the company responsible civilly for their injuries[7] and even law enforcement officials, such as Sheriff Tom Dart, have attempted legal enforcement (of Craigslist for similar issues with their adult section back in 2009 and then pressuring credit card companies to stop providing services to Backpage),[8] to no avail. Several states have even attempted to pass laws to criminalize those who publish child sex ads and also make the site verify the ages of those being advertised only to have Backpage.com challenge these laws as unconstitutional and win.[9]

But Backpage would have us believe it really cares about preventing sex trafficking? I think not. Backpage has hidden behind the law for far too long, but thankfully the Supreme Court of Washington, in a landmark decision last September, held that Backpage.com may not claim immunity in a case involving the trafficking of three young girls.

Before explaining that case I will give some background information as to how Backpage.com has been a place for open and obvious advertisement for prostitution, an activity which is illegal nearly everywhere in the US, and a the primary place for pimps to advertise children and other sex trafficked victims.

The reason Backpage has never been held responsible (criminally or civilly) for the illegal activity facilitated on its site is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The CDA, enacted by Congress in 1996, was intended to protect children from harmful material on the Internet, while at the same time, section 230 specifically, was written to protect large companies like Amazon and Google from being responsible for the content generated by users it could not reasonably manage or police. This clause has been used very broadly over the years and has provided virtual blanket immunity for Internet hosts like Backpage.com. However, this was not the intent of Congress. On several occasions victims of sex trafficking who were advertised on Backpage.com, have attempted to sue the company for damages only to have their cases dismissed based on CDA’s Section 230 immunity.[10] But last September the Supreme Court of Washington may have provided some hope for victims.[11]

Backpage adsIn that case (J.S. v. Village Voice Media Holdings, L.L.C.), three young girls—two of which were 13 at the time and the third who was 15, were trafficked and advertised for sex on Backpage.com—sued the company for the suffering and irreversible damage they endured. They argued that Backpage.com provided a platform that allowed for volume sale in sex that could not otherwise be possible. For instance, one of these girls was sold up to 20 times a day. That translates to once every thirty minutes for 10 hours.[12] This was only possible because of the ease with which predators can find victims advertised by traffickers through Backpage.com’s platform. Anyone who goes to Backpage.com will see hundreds of ads posted daily in the various adult section categories with sexually explicit photos and blatant advertisements for prostitution, many times using pictures or jargon suggesting the ad is for a minor.

Furthermore, the victims argued that Backpage.com is not immune from suit under section 230 of the CDA in part because its advertisement posting rules were “designed to help pimps develop advertisements that can evade the unwanted attention of law enforcement, while still conveying the illegal message.”[13] Essentially, Backpage.com was providing tips on how to advertise acts of prostitution without alerting law enforcement. The Supreme Court of Washington found that there was enough evidence demonstrating that Backpage.com may have facilitated and contributed to the content posted on its website to qualify them as a content provider, rather than as a mere host for content. Thus, the Court denied Backpage’s motion to dismiss based on section 230 of the CDA and sent the case back to trial court to determine Backpage.com’s liability, if any. This was a history making decision and is the first time that Backpage.com has ever had to defend itself at trial. The case is currently in the early stages of pretrial preparation and trial is set for some time this fall.

The young girls in this case were exploited in horrific ways and not only did their pimp profit from their abuse, but so did Backpage.com. Like any successful company Backpage.com knows what aspect of their business model is making them money. And, as the second largest classified ad website in the world, they are certainly successful. With $22 million in revenue from prostitution there can be no doubt that Backpage.com is nurturing this part of their business and catering to demand—demand for an illegal activity at best, and the sexual exploitation and slavery of minors and adults at worst.

Backpage.com’s bad faith has been made clear time and time again.[14] Most recently, Backpage’s CEO, Carl Ferrer decided to spurn the United States Senate which subpoenaed him to testify as part of its investigation into the sex trafficking facilitated by the website. Mr. Ferrer literally blew-off the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and ignored their request for documents and information. As a result, the Senate voted to hold the company in civil contempt, an action they have not taken in two decades.

Backpage.com should be held responsible for facilitating enslavement and sexual exploitation in order to make a profit. It is a perversion of the law for them to be granted immunity under a statute intended to protect children from Internet exploitation. Justice demands that they answer for what they have done and remove a platform that has created such a volume of demand for prostitution and sex trafficking that law enforcement cannot even make a dent in addressing it. The NCOSE Law Center is involved in the legal efforts to support the victims in their trial against Backpage.com in Washington, and applauds the Senate leaders fighting for justice on behalf of victims and the protection of society from sexual predators.

 


 

[1]http://www.worldmag.com/2015/09/backpage_com_s_days_are_numbered_washington_lawyer_predicts.

[2] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/07/08/massachusetts-attorney-general-calls-on-backpage-to-shut-down-adult-section.html.

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/business/16craigslist.html?_r=0.

[4]https://wagner.house.gov/Human%20Trafficking%20%26%20Online%20Prostitution%20Advertising; http://cseinstitute.org/first-circuit-rules-minor-victims-lawsuit-backpage-com/.

[5] http://www.insidesources.com/backpage-com-ceo-ducks-senate-subpoena-on-child-sex-ads/.

[6] http://attorneygeneral.tn.gov/cases/backpage/backpageletter.pdf.

[7] http://cseinstitute.org/first-circuit-rules-minor-victims-lawsuit-backpage-com/; http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/backpagecom-asks-high-court-to-throw-out-lawsuit/.

[8] http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/digest/jurisdiction/district-courts/dart-v-craigslist-inc.; http://www.reuters.com/article/backpagecom-lawsuit-idUSL1N13P2QJ20151130.

[9] http://cnsnews.com/news/article/backpagecom-sues-over-wash-sex-trafficking-law; http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-10-16/backpage-com-accused-of-helping-pimps-in-child-sex-trade; see also Backpage, LLC v. Hoffman (U.S. District court , District of New Jersey), and Backpage, LLC v. Cooper (U.S. District court, M.D. Tennessee).

[10] http://cseinstitute.org/first-circuit-rules-minor-victims-lawsuit-backpage-com/; http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/backpagecom-asks-high-court-to-throw-out-lawsuit/.

[11]http://bigstory.ap.org/article/4b231e3c058e41fe8492562bc523fc7a/washington-supreme-court-rules-against-backpagecom.

[12]http://www.worldmag.com/2015/09/backpage_com_s_days_are_numbered_washington_lawyer_predicts.

[13]http://www.abajournal.com/mobile/article/federal_law_may_not_shield_backpage.com_in_suit_by_trafficked_girls_state_s.

[14] http://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=A8FD42BF-44A6-484F-AA3A-9B26D0960F3F.

The Numbers

300+

NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.

100+

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.

93

NCOSE’s activism campaigns and victories have made headlines around the globe. Averaging 93 mentions per week by media outlets and shows such as Today, CNN, The New York Times, BBC News, USA Today, Fox News and more.

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