Not everyone wants to shut down Backpage.com. The online classified ad site, which generates millions of dollars in revenue by hosting sex-related ads, has been vilified for allowing apparent prostitution ads that sometimes include child trafficking victims. Backpage has claimed for years it is merely a passive host of third-party content, but a story last week in The Washington Post showed that Backpage has been using a contractor in the Philippines to attract more sex advertisers, and sex customers, to its sites around the world.
But Backpage argues there’s an upside to all this and some anti-trafficking advocates agree: The site provides a responsive, reliable repository for local and federal investigators to track illegal activity, from prostitution to murder. Backpage responds quickly to subpoenas and provides testimony and research to police and prosecutors. Shutting down Backpage’s “dating” section would disperse those ads to many smaller and foreign sites who might not be so helpful to American investigators trying to rescue a child or capture a pimp.
“We harness the technologies that have been created,” Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall told an Arizona human trafficking task force in 2013, “and use them intelligently to find and stop the perpetrators of this horrific crime. … Backpage has no tolerance for sex trafficking. As a result, Backpage is one of the best places in America to get busted trafficking a child.”
Statements like these draw extreme skepticism from many anti-trafficking groups, especially those who work with girls once prostituted through Backpage. Eight civil suits have been filed this year alone by women who were underage and sold for sex on Backpage, with renowned attorney David Boies serving as lead counsel in two of them. The suits seek money and injunctions as a way to persuade Backpage to stop hosting sex ads. Five members of Congress last week called for the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of the site.
But it’s a tougher call for law enforcement. They have worked with Backpage for years, and they have gotten information and convictions. McDougall, who declined to speak to The Post on the record, quoted numerous examples in 2013 of law enforcement officials thanking Backpage for their help.
“Mr. Ferrer,” went one email from the FBI in 2011, referring to Backpage chief executive Carl Ferrer, “We want to submit your name for recognition of your assistance following this case.”
“We appreciate Backpage’s vigilance to help protect kids,” an email from Texas said in 2011.
“Your company’s level of cooperation is not the norm,” said an email from a Massachusetts agency in 2011, “and makes a huge difference in our ability to target and ultimately arrest the offender.”
We reached out to a number of law enforcement groups who investigate human trafficking, and several of them didn’t want to discuss Backpage. Defending Backpage is “not a popular position to take in the law enforcement world,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, a human trafficking expert who often testifies in such cases. “In my talks with law enforcement, they do say they use it as a tool.”
Mehlman-Orozco said of the campaign against Backpage, “If these ads ceased to exist would these women not be sold? The answer is no. There’s not a single piece of empirical research to suggest that. It will simply displace these ads.”
The administrator of a smaller rival site has said he is hoping that Backpage gets shut down, Mehlman-Orozco said, because they would scoop up all the sex ads and avoid American law enforcement because it is located outside the country. “Why on earth would anybody who opposes human trafficking,” she said, “risk the advertisements being displaced to a non-U.S. website? It makes no sense.” She also noted that social media are now involved: Facebook has been used to recruit girls for prostitution, and prostitutes now advertise their services on Twitter.
McDougall has said that the courts have repeatedly upheld Backpage’s right to publish adult content and that their First Amendment right to free speech protects them. In addition, the Communications Decency Act holds that websites that merely host third-party content are not liable for that content.
But beyond legal theory, there’s the actual practice, and that’s where there is a stark divide. McDougall said in 2013 that “Backpage’s role in the rescue of victims and conviction of predators in the United States gets short shrift — if it is mentioned at all.” She said, “Backpage has developed a team and systems in order to respond to law enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less,” and that in one case they were able to facilitate three same-day rescues of trafficked children by providing data to the vice lieutenant within an hour of his call.
Lois Lee, who has worked on the streets of Los Angeles for 38 years rescuing child trafficking victims, is a big believer in Backpage, and strongly agreed with Mehlman-Orozco that shutting one website would have no impact on child trafficking.
“The parents or lawyers are able to find these kids. I know,” Lee said in a telephone interview. “Backpage becomes a place where everyone on the street can find their kid.” When Backpage shut down its adult ads category in January, in response to a highly critical report from a Senate subcommittee, Lee issued a public statement calling it “a sad day for America’s children victimized by prostitution.” [The ads have reappeared in the “dating" category.]
Lee acknowledges that Backpage has provided significant funding to her group Children of the Night. They also allow her to post free ads on the site for teens who want to call her for help. But she said that doesn’t change her view that there are many other websites where the ads can go, and the underlying problem of why trafficking happens remains unaddressed.
“Backpage is the looking glass for what is going on with adolescent sexuality in American society now,” Lee said. “Nobody wants to deal with that issue. The reaction of the government, it’s almost like McCarthyism.”
In Minneapolis, police Sgt. Grant Snyder has been fighting human trafficking for more than 20 years. He said Backpage is far more responsive to his requests for help than phone companies or social media, and he has run into dead ends trying to get information from non-U.S. websites. He said there were “a thousand things Backpage could do to make me more efficient,” but added, “You could eradicate Backpage and it wouldn’t make a difference” in trafficking. “There’s an assault on our children and it has very little to do with Backpage.”
That’s because the problem is on the demand side, Snyder said. “The demand absolutely drives this problem,” Snyder said. “And it’s guys like me. White, middle-aged, educated. How is it they’re unreachable? I don’t believe it. We’re targeting the source of ads, and not putting the blame where it belongs. On men.”
Both Andrea Powell, the executive director of FAIR Girls, and Lisa Goldblatt Grace, director of My Life My Choice, two groups which fight trafficking and help its victims, agreed with Lee and Snyder about the underlying problems of trafficking. But they said Backpage is not helping. Powell said FAIR asked Backpage to require age verification for its advertisers, and submit ads to law enforcement in advance, but they refused. “Be a positive force,” Powell has told Backpage. “They chose not to.”
“This is really about a multi-billion dollar sex industry preying on the most vulnerable in our communities,” Grace said. “And Backpage is a key part of this unfair fight.”
Powell said 90 percent of the girls they help were trafficked on Backpage. The practices of scrubbing questionable words from ads but leaving the ads online, of soliciting sex advertisers and customers from other sites, “make it more difficult for law enforcement,” Powell said. “They’re not helping. They’re acting criminally. You can’t light a whole bunch of matches in a box and say, ‘Hope you find the fire.’ You made the fire.”
Other trafficking experts agreed, saying the isolated cases where Backpage helps are overwhelmed by the numbers who remain victimized. Rutgers University professor emeritus James Finckenauer, who co-authored a book on human trafficking and served on a trafficking task force, said, “If you had a number of the potential pool of people victimized, versus the number of cases which you received assistance, I think there’d be a large number in the former and less in the latter. This argument that they’re helpful to law enforcement is specious.”
Finckenauer added, “These folks are in business to make money. I understand that. There’s also areas where business runs into the innocent. At some point. Somebody has to say, ‘Hey, you crossed the line.’”
Plenty in law enforcement are ready to say that, if only because prostitution itself is illegal and cops oppose illegal things. Both Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Ill., who has tried a couple of different ways to stop Backpage through the courts and failed, and Lt. Barry Hill of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department human trafficking bureau, said they had never gotten a call from Backpage alerting them to illegal activity.
“If they were the least bit proactive in any form or fashion,” Dart said, “there might be something to this argument. If they were calling me saying ‘We’ve found a pattern’ or something like that, but I’ve never received a phone call from them.” He said he had written them suggesting ways to actually detect illicit activity, including hiring retired police detectives to monitor the ads and removing (rather than just editing) problem ads, “they theoretically could be a great partner. But that requires activity, not just press releases.”
Boies, the lawyer who represented the Justice Department in the break-up of Microsoft, said his firm researched Backpage for a year before filing civil suits in Arizona and Florida earlier this year. He acknowledged that “closing up Backpage is not going to solve the entire problem. But it will save thousands and thousands of lives.”
Boies echoed many in the police world when he said, “The fact that taking out one sex trafficker doesn’t solve the problem doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it on, particularly when it’s the most pervasive. And then work on some of the others. It may be we’re going to need additional tools to take out some of the other websites. We can deal with that as we go after them. We need to deal with the websites now that we can deal with.”
Dart said, “We can’t have something that’s right in front of our faces, so actively involved with different crimes. We can’t just stand there and do nothing. It could get worse? It’s already pretty bad.”
Note: This post has been updated.