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Attorney General Schneider, 45 Attorneys General Seek Answers From Backpage.com on How Online Advertiser Prevents Facilitation of Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation
September 1, 2011
AG Letter Cites More Than 50 Cases Involving Trafficking or Attempted Trafficking Of Minors Through Backpage.com
AUGUSTA – Attorney General William Schneider and 45 other state attorneys general today called for information about how Backpage.com intends to remove advertising for sex trafficking, especially advertisements that could involve minors.
In a letter to the online classified site’s lawyers, the attorneys general say that Backpage.com claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity and yet the chief legal officers of numerous states have found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites that clearly involve illegal services.
The letter says the website for illegal sex ads is a hub for those seeking to exploit minors and points to more than 50 cases, in 22 states over three years, involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through Backpage.com. “These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist,” the attorneys general wrote.
In many cases involving human trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement has found that minors are, in fact, often coerced. In May, a Dorchester, Massachusetts man was charged with allegedly forcing a 15-year-old girl into a Quincy motel to have sex with various men for $100 to $150 an hour. To find customers, the man allegedly posted a photo of the girl on Backpage.com. Prosecutors in Benton County, Wash., are handling a case in which teen girls say they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on Backpage.com. One of the adults rented a hotel room and forced the girls to have sex with men who answered the online ads. Backpage.com charges $1 and up for such ads.
“Children are being forced into prostitution and those traffickers are being given a tool to make this deplorable crime even easier.” said Attorney General Schneider. “We urge Backpage.com to stop child sex trafficking on the site by completely removing all adult service advertisements.”
Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is a top provider of “adult services” advertisements. The multimedia company, which owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States, admits its involvement in advertising illegal services. In a meeting with staff at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, Village Voice board member Don Moon readily acknowledged prostitution ads appear on the Web site. And in a June 29 article published nationally by the Village Voice, the corporation criticized those concerned about child sex trafficking as “prohibitionists bent on ending the world’s oldest profession,” acknowledging that, as a seller of adults services ads, “Village Voice has a stake in this story.”
Industry analysts suggest that Village Voice’s stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.
Many state attorneys general believe that Backpage.com is attempting to minimize the impact of child sex trafficking because they fear it will turn attention to the company’s robust prostitution advertising business. While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in today’s letter believe that “Backpage.com sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.”
The letter from state attorneys general makes a series of requests to Backpage.com, asking that the company willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena. For example, in order to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, the attorneys general ask that Backpage.com describe in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes “illegal activity,” and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category. The attorneys general also ask, among other requests, how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since Sept. 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, how many were rejected and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services.
In 2008, 42 attorneys general reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings in an effort to reduce prostitution and trafficking of men, women and children. Craigslist removed its “erotic services” section in May 2009 and shut down its adult services section in September 2010. That same month 21 attorneys general wrote Backpage.com to request that the adult services section be closed.
CONTACT: Brenda Kielty (207) 626-8577