TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Attorney General Pam Bondi and 45 other attorneys
general today called for information about how Backpage.com presumably
attempts to remove advertising for sex trafficking, especially ads 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. Yet the chief legal officers of Washington state, Missouri and
Connecticut have found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites
that are clearly for illegal services.
“It does not require forensic training to understand that these
advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general wrote.
The letter says the hub for illegal sex ads is a magnet 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. They also
reminded Backpage.com of a 2010 request from nearly two dozen attorneys
general asking that the adult services site be taken down.
“Human trafficking, a form of modern day slavery, exploits people and
strips them of their dignity,” stated Attorney General Pam Bondi. “We must
collaborate with federal, state and local authorities and other
organizations to combat this growing problem.”
Attorney General Bondi added that kids aren’t capable, legally or
otherwise, to consent to be sold for sex. And regardless of a prostitute’s
age, it’s difficult to know whether the person advertised is being coerced.
In many cases involving human trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement
finds that minors are, in fact, often coerced. 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
Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is the top provider of
“adult services” advertisements. The multimedia company, which owns 13
weekly newspapers in the United States, including Miami New Times and
Broward/Palm Beach New Times, 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 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 in reached an agreement with Craigslist to
crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like human
trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its “erotic services” section
altogether in May 2009. In September 2010, 21 attorneys general wrote
Backpage.com to request that the adult services section be closed.
The states signing on to today’s letter are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona,
Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia,
Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine,
Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota, Missouri,
Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North
Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming and the
territory of Guam.