The mayors of nearly 50 cities across the country are urging Village Voice Media to require identification for people posting escort ads on Backpage.com — its online ad service that has come under scrutiny from authorities for allegations that it's used to promote the prostitution of children.
Mayors of nearly 50 cities across the country are urging Village Voice Media to require identification for people posting escort ads on Backpage.com — its online ad service that has come under scrutiny from authorities for allegations that it’s used to promote the prostitution of children.
“There is an urgent need to act quickly, as cities continue to find advertisements on your site that reflect underage sex trafficking,” the letter by the United States Conference of Mayors said Monday. “We are making every effort to stop the ongoing trafficking of underage individuals, but these efforts are made more difficult by the inadequate safeguards of your website, Backpage.com, to prevent underage sex trafficking.”
The leaders criticizing the ads include the mayors of Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas.
Backpage.com critics say the site is used to advertise juveniles who often are victims of sex trafficking. The mayors join state attorneys general, clergy, anti-sex-trafficking groups and others who have put pressure on Village Voice Media, Backpage.com’s parent company.
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But in an op-ed published in The Seattle Times on Monday, Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall argued that sites such as Backpage.com help law enforcement by attracting traffickers who leave forensic footprints of their activities and can then be traced by law-enforcement agencies.
“Backpage.com already employs a triple-tiered policing system that includes automated filtering and two levels of manual review of the adult and personal categories,” she wrote. “It also responds to law-enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less in almost all cases. It uses its own technological tools to voluntarily collect and submit additional evidence to law enforcement from across the Internet. And it is ready to do more.”
A message left on McDougall’s cellphone was not immediately returned.
A law recently enacted in Washington state makes representatives of classified-advertising companies that publish or cause publication of sex-related ads peddling children subject to criminal prosecution. Proof of a good-faith attempt to verify the age of the advertised person is considered a defense under the law.
At a news conference at Seattle City Hall on Monday, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, one of the sponsors of the new legislation requiring in-person age verification, said McDougall’s assertion that Backpage.com is “an ally in the fight against human trafficking” is like a pimp calling himself “a guardian or protector” of children.
“It’s crazy,” she said.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who last summer ordered the city to yank paid ads from Seattle Weekly, which Village Voice owns, said he hopes Backpage.com officials will comply with the new law, which goes into effect next month.
“We will see what they do but … my guess is they’ll choose to challenge it” in court, McGinn said.
While it’s obvious adult women are being sexually exploited on the site alongside juveniles, McGinn said age verification is “an appropriate starting point” because there is “absolutely no argument about consent” when a minor, rather than an adult, is advertised.
Since 2010, Seattle police have recovered 24 juveniles advertised on Backpage.com, two of them in the past two months, said Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel.
On Thursday, detectives with the department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit set up a “date” with a girl who advertised herself as 22 but had really just turned 17 — and later learned she’d posted an ad on Backpage.com from a public library, Pugel said. She was taken to the King County Jail, where the automatic fingerprinting system alerted detectives that the girl wasn’t who she said she was. Instead of being booked, she was taken to a shelter and then released to her mother, he said.
In their letter sent Monday to Village Voice CEO Jim Larkin, the 48 mayors argued that placing an ad on Backpage.com is too easy for those exploiting underage people. They urged Village Voice to implement a policy in which people placing ads on Backpage.com must show up in person to verify their age.
Backpage.com has been the nation’s leading source of online sex-escort ads since Craigslist.org shuttered its adult-services section in September 2010. McDougall was a lawyer for Craigslist.org, providing counsel on safety, security and abuse, and she testified before a U.S. House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee on domestic sex trafficking days after the online advertiser stopped accepting adult-services ads.
Shared Hope International has compiled a list of dozens of cases in 15 states in which girls were allegedly offered for sex on Backpage.com, most within the past year.
Village Voice Media owns 13 alternative weekly newspapers around the country, including Seattle Weekly. Unlike Backpage.com, Seattle Weekly requires ID from those depicted in sex-related ads in its pages.
Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report.
Associated Press writer Manuel Valdes can be reached at https://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes