Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and more than 40 other state attorneys general are demanding that backpage.com back up its claims that the online classified advertising site enforces policies to prevent child sexual exploitation and human trafficking. In a letter to backpage.com officials Wednesday, the attorneys general criticized the site's efforts as ineffective.

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Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna would like nothing more than to see backpage.com — the online classified advertising site owned by Village Voice Media Holdings — shut down its “escorts” section, just as Craigslist did in September.

Backpage.com officials acknowledge that prostitution ads, including those advertising underage girls, regularly appear on the site. But, they say, the company has strict content policies aimed at preventing child sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

McKenna, who is running for governor, and more than 40 attorneys general across the country are demanding that backpage.com back up those claims with hard data. In a letter sent Wednesday to Samuel Fifer, backpage.com’s Chicago-based lawyer, the attorneys general call the site “a hub” for prostitution and human trafficking and argue that company efforts to restrict prostitution ads, particularly those soliciting sex with children, “have proven ineffective.”

“We believe 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,” says the letter, which notes that the site makes an estimated $22.7 million annually from ads posted in its escorts section.

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At a Wednesday news conference in Seattle, McKenna said backpage.com “should not be providing a powerful online clearinghouse” for pimps to connect with men looking to buy sex. He said it’s time for backpage to “put up or shut up” about their efforts to protect children and women from sexual exploitation.

Backpage.com is owned by Village Voice Media, publisher of Seattle Weekly and 12 other weekly newspapers across the country.

McKenna, the president of the National Association of Attorneys General, has made combating human trafficking his signature issue for his presidency.

For now, McKenna said he and his colleagues are asking for information on 21 points, requesting details on the company’s criteria for determining illegal content and its policies for removing suspect ads.

The request was made without a subpoena. The letter, signed by attorneys general of 45 states and Guam, asked backpage.com to respond by Sept. 14.

Fifer, the backpage.com attorney, said Thursday the company has received the letter. “We’re looking at it carefully and we’re working diligently on a response,” he said.

Independent research in different states shows that “whatever they’re doing is ineffective,” McKenna said in an interview before the news conference. “We’re asking them to document their claims … because we’re skeptical that they’re trying very hard.”

“We’re finding lots of evidence that sex trafficking continues to be rampant on their site,” he said. “Making money from the sexual exploitation of children and adults is unconscionable, and that’s what they’re doing.”

With few legal remedies at their disposal, McKenna acknowledged the request is a moral appeal for backpage.com to “stop hiding behind” the federal Communications Decency Act and “do the decent thing.”

The 1996 federal legislation was aimed at protecting children from online abuse while encouraging a robust Internet. The act provides Internet content and service providers with broad immunity from liability for content posted by third parties.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert III dismissed a federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri on behalf of a 14-year-old girl whose pimp advertised her on backpage.com. The girl’s suit claimed that backpage.com was liable for facilitating her exploitation and argued that backpage.com is aware minors are sexually trafficked on the site and profits from prostitution ads.

Though sympathetic to the girl, Mummert, in a written ruling, said “even if a service provider knows that third parties are posting illegal content, the service provider’s failure to intervene is immunized” under the 1996 act. He further wrote that “neither notice or profit make Backpage liable for the content and consequences of the ads posted” by the girl’s pimp.

Mummert concluded: “Congress has declared such websites to be immune from suits arising from such injuries,” and so it is up to Congress — not the courts — “to change the policy that gave rise to such immunity.”

The immunity provision — successfully utilized by Craigslist in fighting a 2009 federal lawsuit in Illinois over its prostitution ads — is “a high barrier to overcome in federal law,” McKenna said, though he and the other attorneys general are looking to state laws for possible remedies.

Legal wranglings aside, McKenna said, it will take a cultural shift to change attitudes about prostitution.

“People look at prostitution and think it’s a choice, but there are very few, if any, volunteers,” he said. “The more we learn about sex trafficking, the more we believe it is dominated by individuals exploiting both children and adults.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654

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