New trouble for Backpage.com and VVM; AGs demand prostitution-ad shutdown

Posted by on Aug 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

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By Peter M. Zollman

Craigslist shut down its adult services ads — thinly disguised ads for prostitution — almost a year ago.  Now 47 attorneys general from around the United States have asked Backpage.com, the free-classified site owned by Village Voice Media, to eliminate adult-services ads, calling them a “hub” for trafficking of minors.

“It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general said in a letter today to Backpage.com attorney Sam Fifer. “This hub for illegal services has proven particularly enticing for those seeking to sexually exploit minors.”

In the seven-page letter delivered today to Fifer, a Chicago-based partner with SNR Denton LLP, the National Association of Attorneys General cited more than 50 instances in 22 states during three years of “charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com.

“These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances may exist,” the letter said.

Requesting a response by Sept. 14, the attorneys general urged Backpage.com to eliminate its adult services classifeds, or to respond without a subpoena to 21 points to substantiate its claim that it uses “strict content policies to prevent illegal activity.”

In an email, Fifer told us:  “As we advised NAAG earlier today, we have received the letter, are looking at it carefully and are working diligently on a response.”

The letter said that in a meeting with the Washington state attorney general’s office, a VVM board member “readily admitted that prostitution advertisements regularly appear on Backpage.com. This shows that the stated representations about the site are in direct conflict with the reality of Backpage’s business model: making money from a service illegal in every state, but for a few counties in Nevada.”

Backpage recently wrote to the office of the mayor in Seattle, accepting four requests by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn that it cooperate with police to monitor its site for suspected child prostitution and take additional steps to fight child trafficking on its site. The company later said it would it would continue to cooperate with the Seattle Police Department “and to seek the highest level of online security to screen against underage exploitation in adult classifieds” but would no longer meet with the mayor because he was a “desperate media hound.”

The AGs’ letter said that if Backpage is screening adult services ads, as it has reported, that screening is not successful.

While Backpage.com professes to have undertaken efforts to limit advertisements for prostitution on its website, particularly those soliciting sex with children, such efforts have proven ineffective. In May, for example, a Dorchester, Massachusetts man was charged for forcing a 15-year-old girl into a motel to have sex with various men for $100 to $150 an hour. To find customers, the man posted a photo of the girl on Backpage.com. He was later found with $19,000 in cash. In another example, prosecutors in Washington state are handling a case in which teen girls say they were coerced, threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on Backpage.com.

“We have tracked more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years, of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com. These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist. These cases often involve runaways ensnared by adults seeking to make money by sexually exploiting them. In some cases, minors are pictured in advertisements. In others, adults are pictured but minors are substituted at the “point of sale” in a grossly illegal transaction.

“Nearly naked persons in provocative positions are pictured in nearly every adult services advertisement on Backpage.com and the site requires advertisements for escorts, and other similar “services,” to include hourly rates. It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution. This hub for illegal services has proven particularly enticing for those seeking to sexually exploit minors.”

The letter added:

… Backpage.com devotes only a fraction of the revenue generated from its adult section advertisements to manual content review. We believe 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. …

“As a practical matter, it is likely very difficult to accurately detect underage human trafficking on Backpage.com‟s adult services section, when to an outside observer, the website‟s sole purpose seems to be to advertise prostitution. That is why Craigslist‟s decision to shut down its adult services section was applauded as a clear way for it to eradicate advertising on its website that trafficked children for prostitution. It is also why we have called on Backpage.com to take similar action.”

The attorneys generals’ letter cited AIM Group estimates of Backpage.com annual revenue from adult services ads at $22.7 million. However, the AGs did not contact the AIM Group before they sent the letter, and we had no knowledge of their action until we read about it online.

Backpage has long maintained that it is fully protected by the U.S. Communications Decency Act from legal challenges based on the content of ads posted by its users. Less than two weeks ago, we reported that federal court magistrate Thomas Mummert ruled Backpage.com and Village Voice Media were immune from a lawsuit involving a teenager who was pimped out through an ad on Backpage.com.

“Congress has declared such websites to be immune from suits arising from such injuries,” Mummert ruled. “It is for Congress to change the policy that gave rise to such immunity.”

Village Voice Media hasn’t issued a public response. We point out that the AGs’ letter does not bind the company to respond. No mention yet on the company’s blog. However, a new User Safety page on Backpage points to public resources should users suspect human trafficking or child endangerment.

Written by Peter M. Zollman

Peter M. Zollman brings more than 35 years of media experience to his role as founding principal of the AIM Group / Classified Intelligence Report. He has worked with a wide range of media companies, dot-coms, technology providers and start-ups to develop and expand successful interactive-media services. He is based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., near Orlando.

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