BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – If you are in search of escorts, body rubs, strippers, strip clubs, domination and fetish, Transsexuals, male escorts, pornographic web sites and phone calls or adult jobs, Backpage.com promises to connect you with those services, whether in Hawaii or elsewhere throughout the country.
The site has other classified services, but it is the so called “adult services” that has attorneys general across the country concerned about the web site.
Backpage.com claims to have strict policies to prevent illegal activity and post this disclaimer on its site, which users must agree to:
However, Hawaii’s Attorney General David Louie and 45 other attorneys general aren’t convinced that this is enough – they have asked the publishers of Backpage.com how the site ensures that it is protecting sex trafficking victims – especially children – from being exploited on through their ads.
Their concern comes after revelations that investigators in Washington state, Missouri and Connecticut have uncovered “hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.” And they have documented more than 50 cases, in 22 states over the last three years that have involving the trafficking – or attempted trafficking – of minors through the web site.
“It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general wrote in a letter to attorneys for Backpage.com. “These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist.”
In 2010, nearly two dozen attorneys general asked Backpage.com publishers to remove the adult services section.
Calling it a “beacon for human traffickers and easy for them to exploit,” Hawaii Attorney General David Louie said, “It is simply too easy for child sex trafficking to occur on Backpage.com’s site. If it’s going to be part of the solution, it must take down these advertisements and aggressively monitor the rest of its site.”
Minors have often been exploited and coerced, law enforcement has found.
A statement from the attorney general’s office said today that “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.”
Village Voice Media, LLC, a mulitmedia company, owns the web site and 13 weekly newspapers throughout the United States. The company is considered the top provider of “adult services” advertisements.
The attorneys general say the company “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,” the attorney general said today.
While Backpage.com has made some effort to scope out ads involving minors, the attorneys general issuing today’s letter say the company seems to be trying to ensure that “the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.”
Specifically the letter sent today asks that the company “substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, describe its understanding of what constitutes illegal activity, and clarify whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category.”
States signing on to the letter include 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.
This is not the first time attorneys general have united to prevent illegal activity on the internet. In 2008, 42 attorneys general and Craigslist teamed up to crack down on illegal listings, and as a result, Craigslist removed its “erotic services” section in May 2009.