(DES MOINES, Iowa) Attorney General Tom Miller today called on backpage.com to provide detailed information on how the online classified website purportedly attempts to remove sex trafficking advertising on its site, especially ads for illegal services that could involve minors.
In a letter to the company's lawyers, Miller, who joined with a group of 45 attorneys general (44 states and one U.S. territory), says that while backpage.com claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity, hundreds of recent ads on backpage.com regional sites, including ads on its Iowa site, clearly advertise sex for money. Attorneys general in Washington, Missouri and Connecticut are leading the multistate effort to convey the message to backpage.com.
"It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution," the attorneys general wrote.
The letter says the hub for illegal sex ads is a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors and points to more than 50 cases, in 22 states over three years, involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through backpage.com. "These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist," the attorneys general wrote. They also reminded backpage.com of a 2010 request from nearly two dozen attorneys general, including Miller, urging the company to shut down its "adult services" site.
Miller notes that this office prosecuted the state’s first human trafficking case in Crawford County in 2008. In that case, Leonard Ray Russell recruited and harbored two Nebraska teenage runaways, who at the time were 15 and 16. Through ads on Craigslist, Russell used the teens for the purpose of commercial sexual activity, including prostitution and performing at strip clubs. Russell was convicted of a Class C felony and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
"Backpage.com, through its 'adult services' site, makes it easy for sex traffickers to exploit teenage runaways and other disadvantaged victims," Miller said. "I strongly urge backpage.com to do the right thing and pull its ‘adult services’ site. The company also needs to police its website so these flagrant ads don't appear elsewhere on backpage.com."
Miller added that kids are not capable, legally or otherwise, to consent to be sold for sex. And regardless of a prostitute’s age, it’s difficult to know whether the person advertised is being coerced.
According to industry analysts, Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is the top provider of "adult services" advertisements. The multimedia company, which also owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States, 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 company's website. 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.” Analysts suggest that Village Voice’s stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.
Miller expressed concern that backpage.com is attempting to minimize the impact of child sex trafficking out of fear that it will turn attention to the company’s lucrative prostitution advertising business. While backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in today’s letter believe that "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."
The letter from state attorneys general makes a series of requests to backpage.com, asking that the company willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena. For example, in order to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, the attorneys general ask that backpage.com describe in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes "illegal activity," and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category. The attorneys general also ask, among other requests, how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since Sept. 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, how many were rejected and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services.
In 2008, 42 attorneys general, including Miller, reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like human trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its "erotic services" section altogether in May 2009. In September, 2010, 21 attorneys general, including Miller, wrote backpage.com to request that the adult services section be closed.