Backpage Defends Prostitution Ads on Nightline

For the first time, executives at Village Voice Media (which owns the Dallas Observer) and the Dallas-based Backpage.com have allowed outsiders to watch the screening process used for their prostitution ads. Liz McDougall, the new in-house counsel for Backpage (she used to work for Craigslist) allowed cameras from Nightline into a screening room in an undisclosed location (probably Phoenix) where both an automated key word-catch system and real live employees monitor each ad before it goes up.

The report, which features two women who were trafficked underage using Backpage and several officials who want to see the escort section of Backpage shut down, also includes a sophisticated defense of the ads. While classified ads likes those on Backpage make both buying and selling sex easier, McDougall argues, Backpage can also be part of the solution, working with police and investigators to put human traffickers in prison.

Of course, it’s more complicated than either side wants to admit. Yes, online advertising makes it safer for the women (and men) who voluntarily sell themselves — and, everyone agrees, these people are responsible for the majority of Backpage prostitution ads. But the marketplace, an “open casbah” one politician calls it, also makes the industry easier and more profitable for pimps.

McDougall’s key quote:  “I think it’s very important to understand that to stop human trafficking online, you have to fight human trafficking online. And we provide an extraordinary tool to do that, because we are online.”

Last month, you’ll remember, Village Voice Media claimed in an unsigned editorial response to the New York Times‘ Nicholas Kristoff that the company had “hundreds of staff” dedicated to screening ads. The Nightline report says they saw “dozens” or screeners, and were told about other locations with similar setups. One of the locations is in Dallas, although the screening done here has less to do with identifying potential trafficking victims. A lot of the screening, McDougall explained to me recently, is done in India.

The most disturbing part of the report comes from the women who were victimized through Backpage. One claims she serviced up to 20 men per night, making her pimp more than $4,000 a day, and she still had to ask permission to eat. Another woman says her former pimp carved flesh from her face and ate it, threatening to do worse if she disobeyed. One woman says she hopes to become a lawyer one day so she can help shut down sites like Backpage.

So what’s the answer? A new law in Washington requires sites like Backpage to verify documentation proving any escort is over the age of 18. That law, though, probably isn’t constitutional. (If someone else doesn’t, Backpage will likely challenge the law in court.) If Backpage removes the ads, like Craigslist did, they will almost certainly pop up somewhere else. “Playing whack-a-mole,” McDougall calls it. By not removing the ads, Backpage is “normalizing this practice of advertising prostitution online,” according to Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Do we trust the company that reportedly makes more than $20 million a year in prostitution advertising to monitor itself and self-report any potential exploitation of minors? Or do we trust the pandering politicians who seem, at least to my mind, like they care less about the actual victims and more about espousing popular sentiments that might get them re-elected?

If you’ve got a viable solution, I’m sure both sides — and the police, and the victim advocacy groups — would love to hear it.

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