Backpage.com has responded to the complaints of 47 attorneys general in the United States that its adult services ads promote prostitution — basically saying that “we’re on your side” in fighting trafficking in children, while at the same time warning that “any prosecution or threatened prosecution of Backpage.com would infringe free speech rights under the First Amendment.”
In a 10-page letter sent Sept. 23 to the National Association of Attorneys General and released late last week, Village Voice Media attorney Sam Fifer reiterated the company’s actions to private child trafficking on Backpage.com, the general classifieds site operated by VVM, but also warned that the “application of extra-legal governmental pressure short of arrest or indictment would chill or silence a person … from the exercise of future First Amendment activities.”
Backpage generates more than $2 million per month in revenue from online escort and body-rub advertising, an amount that has increased 50 percent year-over-year, according to conservative AIM Group estimates. The AIM Group projects millions more in print advertising at the Backpage advertising sections operated at Village Voice Media print newspaper sites. The attorneys general group called Backpage ads a “hub for illegal services [that] has proven particularly enticing for those seeking to sexually exploit minors.”
In his letter, Fifer cited several instances when Backpage or Village Voice Media cooperated with law enforcement to respond to requests or inquiries about illegal or inappropriate advertising. The company said it often provides testimony at trials “to authenticate the evidence of criminals who have wrongfully used Backpage.com’s website.”
“While we fully embrace the opportunity and look forward to working with the Attorneys General … [our] conduct stands in stark contrast to others in the industry and compares favorably with (1) telephone directory listings for “escort services,” (2) newspaper personal ad sections, (3) give-away “adult services” papers and magazines widely distributed in urban areas … and (4) escort sites, such as those found on major search engines, and large escort domain hosting companies.”
The company enumerated its screening and “newly upgraded and automated filters” that have banned thousands of terms from ads. Fifer offered to send the attorneys specifics of the proprietary information as long as they agree to “reasonable” confidentiality.
In one recent case, Fifer said, local law enforcement officers posted ads on Backpage.com as part of a sting operation, but “our moderators, who had no knowledge of the sting, removed their postings, blocked their credit card, and reported the ad to [the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children].”
Fifer said the company was told that the sting team included the Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. attorney’s office and several local law enforcement agencies, and received an email that “all commented on how effective Backpage was on getting the ads removed quickly and blocking future ads from the same posters.”
“We believe that our level of resources dedicated to these processes compares favorably with any other Web or social media site,” Fifer said.
Fifer said Jeff Modisett of SNR Denton, Fifer’s and VVM’s law firm, and Don Bennett Moon of the Village Voice Media board of directors, would work with the attorneys general to “help chart a meaningful course … to protect children from the terrible tragedy that is child trafficking.” Modisett is a former member of the National Association of Attorneys General; Moon has worked with the site and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children since last March on safety issues. “Both are former elected prosecutors with strong backgrounds in child-protection issues,” Fifer said.
* * *
We had asked Fifer several times by email and telephone message for the company’s answer to the NAAG; he never returned our calls or sent us the reply.