Backpage.com Used for Sex Trafficking

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*Author’s note: This blog post does not aim to discuss issues surrounding free speech and the Internet, but rather to discuss the posting of advertisements for sexual services to Backpage.com without the consent of the individuals involved. It also does not aim to attack Backpage.com as a whole, but rather some of their specific policies which do not protect survivors of sex trafficking.

Anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can find the adult section of Backpage.com. In a Google search and two or three clicks, your screen will be filled with advertisements for adult services in your local area. These advertisements include pictures (primarily young women), and descriptions of their appearance, prices charged, and explanations of their services. Although many of these ads are posted by individuals working independently in commercial sex, some of these individuals aren’t posting to these sites voluntarily. In addition to individuals working independently, sex traffickers use Backpage to advertise for sexual services, without the consent of the individuals they are trafficking. [1].

Backpage has been sued multiple times in an attempt to stop their online advertisements from being used for sex trafficking purposes. In 2015, three victims of sex trafficking sued Backpage for posting ads that featured them. [2]. They argued this lawsuit under a section of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act [3], which applies to anyone “who knowingly benefits financially or receives value from human trafficking.” Because Backpage.com is a for-profit website, the plaintiffs argued that they were benefiting financially from the adult advertisements posted without the plaintiff’s permission. However, according to a section of the Communications Decency Act passed in 1996 [4], websites are protected from criminal liability of third party content. Citing this law, courts have ruled that Backpage.com can’t be held liable for what people post on its website. [5].

Additionally, some have argued that the specific policies of Backpage are designed to help sex traffickers and buyers of trafficking victims stay anonymous. This includes Backpage’s acceptance of anonymous email addresses, anonymous payments, and the ability to post and purchase from the site without creating an official account. Some credit card companies, such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express have taken direct stances against Backpage. In 2015, these companies announced that they would stop processing payments from the adult advertisements section of the site. [6]. However, Backpage still accepts Paypal, online checks, and online currencies such as Bitcoin to pay for adult advertisements. In April of 2015 alone, Backpage.com posted 1.4 million adult service advertisements, which accounted for at least 9 million dollars in revenue. [7].

Backpage has also recently come under scrutiny by the U.S. Senate. The Senate has been attempting for over a year to obtain Backpage’s operating records. This includes information about how it moderates ads, and whether or not ads that clearly sell minors for sex are being taken down, or instead edited to evade law enforcement. In March of 2016, the Senate held Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer in contempt for not willingly releasing this information.[8].

Although not every ad posted on Backpage is of a sex trafficking victim, Backpage needs to be held accountable for any activity that might knowingly contribute to trafficking. In light of recent lawsuits being ruled in Backpage’s favor, it is up to other industry leaders to take a stand against Backpage’s policies. This includes businesses which use Backpage. These businesses can follow suit with credit card companies and stop commerce with Backpage. Furthermore, the U.S. Senate should continue their investigation into Backpage’s operations.

 By Jessica Nerz

*Jessica Nerz is a sophomore Government and Politics major at the University of Maryland and an intern at the Amara Legal Center. She hopes to become an attorney, with a focus on anti human trafficking efforts and human rights law.

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