Washington, DC – Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, president of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), gave the following speech about Backpage.com today. McKenna spoke to his fellow attorneys general at NAAG’s spring meeting.
Last year nearly all of you signed a letter to the online classified site Backpage.com, asking that the company substantiate its claims that it fights to prevent the exploitation of minors through its site.
As you know, we came to this issue because, as our state’s chief law enforcement officers, we are particularly sensitive to crimes against children. We can’t tolerate online prostitution ads featuring minors. That’s part of what led many of us to work with Craigslist to eliminate adult services ads, which they did in 2010.
Leading up to last year’s letter to Backpage, we’d seen more than 50 media reports in 22 states of arrests directly related to the exploitation of minors through the site. These were just the stories that made it into the news.
And the arrests continue.
Last week, federal authorities apprehended a man in New York for sexually trafficking six minors through Backpage. Federal law enforcement officers say Thomas Cramer, a career criminal, recruited the girls, placed ads for them on Backpage and took the girls to meet customers at hotels, taking a portion of the proceeds.
In a text message exchange captured by DOJ, Cramer tells a girl that she can make more money being a prostitute than at her job at a grocery store. Prosecutors say at least one of the minors was a runaway. That’s typical. Pimps and other traffickers target the vulnerable – society’s so-called “throw-aways.”
No young person deserves to be thrown away. It’s outrageous that kids who face abuse at home, who often run away and fall into drug or alcohol abuse, are exploited by pimps. Yet, as vice-squad officers will tell you, these are the kids sought out by criminals, recruited into prostitution and posted for sale on sites such as Backpage.
As you know, Backpage is owned by Village Voice Media Holdings. The Voice was co-founded by Norman Mailer and others in 1955 to promote independent journalism. Over the years the Voice received Pulitzer prizes and a host of other awards.
But today, those on the left, right and center; religious and secular leaders; government and non-government organizations are increasingly frustrated that a company founded to promote free thought has degenerated into one that, in effect, promotes human trafficking. Backpage charges one dollar and up for adult services ads, generating upwards of $22 million in annual revenue. That revenue comes largely from promoting a service that’s illegal in every state.
Backpage representatives say they work closely with law enforcement to root out the exploitation of minors on their site. But where were they when Thomas Cramer’s victims were posted there? Where were they when they allowed, for example, ads featuring a 15-year-old from my state? I’m speaking of a young person who visited my office recently to talk about her experiences. She was ensnared into prostitution within 48 hours of running away from home. No one from Backpage intervened when her pimp posted an advertisement. She was terribly abused and assaulted by a man who responded to the Backpage posting.
Again, Backpage representatives say they are committed to preventing minors from being posted on their site. But where were they when this girl needed protection?
Since our letter to Backpage.com, a few major developments have taken place. First, in October of last year, the Auburn Theological Seminary placed a full page ad in the New York Times calling for Backpage to end its adult services section. They launched two online petitions, one for clergy and one for a general audience. It was signed by 450 religious leaders—Christians, Jews and Muslims—and more than 80,000 Americans overall. You’ll find the petitions on Change.org.
In February, John Buffalo Mailer, the son of Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer, urged Village Voice to take down the Backpage adult services section, before the company his father helped create would, and I quote, “Have to answer for yet another child who is abused and exploited because (the company) did not do enough to prevent it.”
Finally, just last week, a groundbreaking bipartisan bill passed the Washington state Legislature. I’ve brought copies with me today. This new law – which may be of interest in your states – makes it illegal to knowingly publish an escort ad involving a minor. It offers an affirmative defense for those who can show they obtained age verification before an ad was published. This provides an incentive for companies such as Backpage to verify the ages of those posted on their site.
However, Backpage executives have previously opposed any suggestion that they check the ID of those posted on their site. They say it’s simply too high a bar for them to meet. But again, they make over $22 million a year from adult services ads. Is it too high a bar to require that those ads feature people old enough to legally consent?
The fact that Backpage opposes age verification shows that their stated commitment to protecting kids is, apparently, more window dressing than an actual reality.
Some of you have asked about Backpage’s response to the request that came from all of us. You’ve asked if they’ve provided the information we requested about how, exactly, they work to protect kids. The answer is no. We asked seven months ago. Backpage lawyers dithered and delayed and offered excuses. Recently, after months of delays, they said they have compiled the information and will provide it. But we’re still waiting.
So, what’s next?
In the case of Craigslist, we dealt with a company whose CEO, Jim Buckmaster, believes in putting people above profits. Not so in the case of the Village Voice and Backpage. In this case, we deal with a company apparently impervious to public opinion and immune to any sense of shame. This point is driven home by the Village Voice’s deployment of their 13 weekly newspapers to produce stories suggesting that child sex trafficking is an overstated problem.
No. When any child is exploited, the problem is not overstated. It demands our full attention. We agree with those who are committed to fighting child sex trafficking, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Polaris Project and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. All of these organizations—and a few others—have been attacked by the Village Voice for their work to fight child sex trafficking.
However, there is still a way forward for Village Voice: they can respond to the tens of thousands of Americans, in addition to all of you, who have asked them to be good corporate citizens and end adult services advertising. We will continue to put pressure on Backpage. And every day, more important voices join ours. We have been working closely with Senator Mark Kirk and Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s offices. I know it is one of Sen. Kirk’s top priorities to ensure that Backpage.com ceases its facilitation of child sex trafficking through its adult services section. Sen. Blumenthal has been focused on this issue since his days as Connecticut’s Attorney General. We’ve also been working with Congressman Dave Reichert – my congressman. He’s the former King County Sheriff and one of the key people involved in apprehending the Green River Killer. As such, Congressman Reichert is very familiar with crimes targeting runaways.* I look forward to continue working with Senator Kirk, Senator Blumenthal, Congressman Reichert and others as we seek to protect children from online sex trafficking.
Finally, members of Congress may want to review section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to make sure that when Backpage goes away, another operation based on exploitation doesn’t fill the void.
The CDA was passed in 1996 in response to fears about Internet Service Provider liability for defamatory statements made by their online users. It was intended to protect ISPs and Web sites from tort liability for materials posted by third parties. Backpage executives see the CDA as a license to make money from prostitution ads without any accountability. I disagree with their assessment. The CDA does not immunize Web sites from criminal prosecutions under federal law, though the states are currently hampered in their ability to take enforcement action. However, given that sites such as Backpage see this federal statute as an invitation to promote human trafficking without consequence, Congress should hold hearings about carefully revising the law to ensure that the knowing promotion of prostitution, for example, is more easily pursued by state authorities, in addition to their federal counterparts.
Child sex trafficking – whether it occurs online or off – is an urgent problem. It’s not, as the Village Voice would have you believe, an overstated panic. It’s not too late for the Voice to do the right thing and act to protect kids.
*Due to a staff error, the speech text provided to Attorney General McKenna did not include the sentences about Congressman Reichert. However, Congressman Reichert indicated months ago an interest in helping to address the problem of human trafficking promoted in online classified ads.