Backpage site: en­abler of traf­fick­ers or a hin­der­ance?

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY MARTHA IRVINE

The adult ads on Backpage.com are end­less — writ­ten in a sort of risque code to avoid im­ply­ing some­thing illegal, yet still ob­vi­ous in­vi­ta­tions for sex, adorned with sug­ges­tive photos and videos. Many in the fight against sex traf­fick­ing loathe the web­site, par­tic­u­larly since some es­corts in the ads have turned out to be mi­nors who’ve been forced into the sex trade.

An Illi­nois sher­iff is among those tar­get­ing Backpage and re­cently helped con­vince Visa and Mastercard to stop pro­vid­ing pay­ment ser­vices to the site.

“Who­ever it is that’s fa­cil­i­tat­ing these hor­ri­ble crimes, we can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s OK. I guess it’s a busi­ness model,’” said Thomas Dart, the sher­iff in Cook County, Illi­nois, which in­cludes Chicago.

He spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press the day be­fore a judge is­sued a re­strain­ing or­der, pre­vent­ing Dart from mak­ing fur­ther com­ment un­til a Backpage law­suit against him — seek­ing a re­trac­tion of his state­ments to credit card com­pa­nies and dam­ages for lost rev­enue — is re­solved. Mean­while, Backpage, with head­quar­ters in Dal­las and a par­ent cor­po­ra­tion in Am­s­ter­dam, has con­tin­ued to op­er­ate, al­low­ing users to place free ba­sic ads in its adult cat­e­gory.

Backpage at­tor­neys, cit­ing the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion and fed­eral statutes, ar­gue that a public fig­ure shouldn’t be al­lowed to in­ter­fere with a law-abid­ing com­pany’s abil­ity to do e-com­merce.

Liz McDougall, gen­eral coun­sel, has long said that Backpage sim­ply pro­vides space for the ads but doesn’t cre­ate the con­tent. And she takes it a step fur­ther, claim­ing that Backpage rou­tinely works be­hind the scenes with law en­force­ment to help put traf­fick­ers be­hind bars.

When it comes to fight­ing sex traf­fick­ing, “I am a true be­liever that this is one of the most valu­able tools there is on the In­ter­net,” said McDougall, who’s based in Los An­ge­les.

At least one anti-traf­fick­ing group has been will­ing to work with Backpage to res­cue young women and has ac­cepted sub­stan­tial do­na­tions from the site.

And even as some in law en­force­ment point a fin­ger of blame at Backpage, oth­ers on the front lines of the fight against sex traf­fick­ing see the site as an ally — even if some­times un­com­fort­ably so.

‘Things that make a dif­fer­ence’

“I don’t feel like de­mo­niz­ing them is the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse. I feel like we should be work­ing with them and fo­cus­ing on ... things that could make a dif­fer­ence,” said Sgt. Grant Sny­der, the lead de­tec­tive on the hu­man traf­fick­ing team at the Min­neapo­lis Po­lice Depart­ment.

Like of­fi­cials in other big-city de­part­ments, he con­firms that he regularly gets in­for­ma­tion di­rectly from Backpage that helps con­vict traf­fick­ers and res­cue vic­tims.

Dart says the help hardly jus­ti­fies the crush of ads the site cre­ates. He es­ti­mated that the com­pany, in April alone, pub­lished more than 1.4 mil­lion adult ser­vices ads and made at least US$9 mil­lion.

Some ads are posted by sex work­ers such as Grace Marie, a dom­i­na­trix in Los An­ge­les who tweeted re­cently to com­plain about Dart’s cam­paign.

“As a sys­tem, Backpage is de­cid­edly anti-pimp. It cre­ates a di­rect and easyto-use in­ter­face be­tween providers and clients,” Grace Marie said when con­tacted by the AP. She uses her first and mid­dle names in her work and asked that her last name not be used, cit­ing safety con­cerns and the fact that her work is illegal.

The big­ger con­cern among law en­force­ment, how­ever, is sex traf­fick­ing.

Sex Traf­fick­ing Vic­tims From Home

Vic­tims are not al­ways, as many think, women or chil­dren smug­gled in from for­eign coun­tries to work as sex slaves. Po­lice say sex traf­fick­ing is as much a home­grown crime — with vic­tims who could be from just around the cor­ner, con­trolled by pimps with drugs and al­co­hol or threats.

Its crit­ics claim that Backpage helps pro­mote this illegal trade.

“How is it pos­si­bly le­gal to help pimps sell kids? Since when is that le­gal in the United States of Amer­ica?” asked Erik Bauer, an at­tor­ney in Ta­coma, Washington state, who is rep­re­sent­ing four young women in a law­suit against Backpage. They are seek­ing dam­ages from the site be­cause their con­victed traf­fick­ers used it to sell them for sex when they were 7th and 9th graders.

Be­sides pro­vid­ing law en­force­ment with in­for­ma­tion about who posts an ad, McDougall says that Backpage em­ploy­ees watch the site’s con­tent closely and send sus­pi­cious ads to the U.S. Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing & Ex­ploited Chil­dren.

In March, for in­stance, po­lice in Panama City, Florida, ar­rested two Illi­nois men — Dashawn Tay­lor and Kevin Dante Fin­ley — and charged them with procur­ing a mi­nor for pros­ti­tu­tion. Po­lice found the two men with a 16-year-old girl at a Panama City ho­tel af­ter Backpage re­ported an ad with a photo of an un­der­age girl to NCMEC’s sex­ual ex­ploita­tion Cy­ber­Ti­pline.

Still, NCMEC’s top online anal­y­sis ex­pert said Backpage could do more to stop re­peat ads, for in­stance.

“Mere re­port­ing has fallen short,” said Staca Shehan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the cen­ter’s case anal­y­sis di­vi­sion, which over­sees the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s child sex traf­fick­ing team.

And be­cause age is so dif­fi­cult to ver­ify, even Backpage’s al­lies con­cede that the sys­tem is not per­fect.

“There’s no ques­tion that kids are go­ing to slip through on some of those ads,” said Lois Lee. She is the founder and di­rec­tor of Chil­dren of the Night, a residential pro­gram in Van Nuys, Cal­i­for­nia, for young peo­ple, ages 11 to 17, who are at­tempt­ing to leave pros­ti­tu­tion.

By the end of this year, Backpage will have do­nated US$ 700,000 to Chil­dren of the Night since 2012 — all of it, Lee said, used to feed, clothe and ed­u­cate young women who come to her, of­ten by way of po­lice de­part­ments across the coun­try, many who work with Backpage. The site also runs public ser­vice ads for a Chil­dren of the Night res­cue hot­line.

Teens in her pro­gram said that if their traf­fick­ers didn’t use Backpage, they’d sim­ply use other sites. And those sites don’t al­ways help po­lice, said Sny­der in Min­neapo­lis.

“We can’t shut down the In­ter­net. So are we bet­ter off hav­ing a strat­egy that turns the very tools that (crim­i­nals) use to traf­fic back on them?” Sny­der asked.

Sher­iff Dart sees another way — for credit card com­pa­nies to with­hold pay­ment ser­vices from the next big “en­tity” that al­lows es­cort ads, as they have Backpage.

“We’re never go­ing to elim­i­nate this,” the sher­iff said. “But what we can do is to make it more dif­fi­cult for the crim­i­nals who are in­volved with this — and make it eas­ier for us to catch them.”

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