In the wake of Craigslist removing the "adult classifieds" section from its 700+ sites worldwide, the Village Voice Media-owned online classified ad service backpage.com has emerged as what some would call the #1 source for online sex in the United States.
In a recent study, the Advanced Interactive Media Group (AIMG) estimates that about 70 percent of the revenue generated from online sex-trafficking in the US goes to Backpage—in the last 12 months alone, the site pulled in $25.4 million
In 2010, the attorneys for a 15-year-old child sex-trafficking victim filed a civil lawsuit against Backpage, after the young girl's pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, was sentenced to 5 years in jail for soliciting prostitution with a minor, among much else.
But the lawsuit went nowhere and Backpage did not end up having to pay any compensatory damages, because "Under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, internet companies such as Backpage that host third-party content are not held liable if third-party users post 'indecent' material."
Now, Backpage is in jeopardy, as activists in Washing ton D.C., New York City, and Washington State, all part of a national movement against Backpage, are placing increasing pressure on the website itself, as well as the federal government, to stop the child-sex trade from using the online classified ad service to facilitate its black-market crime.
This year, amendments to Washington State Senate Bill 6521—which were supposed to go into law earlier this month—proposed that it would be illegal if someone or some company "knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays ... any advertisement for a commercial sex act, which is to take place in the state of Washington and that includes the depiction of a minor." Violating the bill would be a Class C felony in Washington State, which would bring a minimum of five years behind bars and $10,000 in fines for each violation.
Backpage, in response, sued to stop the law,
The proposed Washington State amendments may be a direct move to combat child sex-trafficking, but Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University specializing in internet law, believes such legislation threatens Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act—"perhaps the most important internet law ever," he told The Verge.
"It's hard to imagine sites like YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Yelp, Facebook or Twitter without Section 230," he said. The Washington State law "sideswipes Section 230 by trying to make websites undertake verification and record-keeping obligations" that would be extremely expensive and nearly impossible in everyday practice.
"Imagine Twitter without real-time posting," he said. If Washington State's law is allowed to pass, it "will destroy the user-generated content community."
Prostitution itself may be legal only in some parts of Nevada, but other forms of legal sex work exist, and for those sex workers—exotic dancers, strippers, dominatrices, etc—Backpage valued as a useful tool for screening clients and advertising services.
Reached for comment, one New York City sex worker, who agreed to speak with me under terms of strict anonymity, called such legal action against Backpage a "silly bandaid" that will only "make things harder for legitimate sex workers who are trying to do legal business."
"Some people may think it's a worthwhile trade-off—they'd be willing to lose something like Twitter, if it really meant that child sex-trafficking would be obliterated—but it doesn't work like that; they're still going to find a way to traffic children. " Getting rid of a site like Backpage will only mean that the people trafficking minors for sex will have to turn to a different outlet to continue their trade, she reasoned.
"We're facing another election, so they found another sex-trafficking website to go after," she explained. During the previous election year, Craigslist was brought down.
"It's well known in the sex-work industry that vice is paid off by certain houses––brothels, strip clubs, etc," she told me. "That's why they go after Backpage," because they have no hush money coming from the site, and it reflects well during an election year for the law enforcement to have a great coup like the eradication of a perceived threat to the safety of children.
Regardless of the driving motives for the push to bring down Backpage, there's no dispute that trafficking of minors for sex must stopped. But Backpage is "just a tool that's involved in the black market," and getting rid of this tool will not get rid of the actual problem. "What, are they going to start taking away people's computers, too?"
Next week, a judge will have to decide with to strike down the Washington State law, allow portions of it into effect, or support it entirely as written. Whatever the outcome, the nation will be primed for such legal action to come; New York and New Jersey are now considering whether to enact online sex-trafficking laws of their own. This seems to be undoubtedly only beginning of a national movement toward holding the internet accountable for our own bad behavior. [TheVerge]