OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) - Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and 45 other attorneys general on Wednesday called for online classified site Backpage.com to stop ads promoting human sex trafficking, especially those that could involve minors.
In a letter to the site's lawyers, the attorneys general say that while Backpage.com claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity, a handful of AGs have found hundreds of ads on its regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.
"It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution," the attorneys general wrote.
The letter says the hub for illegal sex ads is a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors. The attorneys general point to more than 50 cases, in 22 states over three years, involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through Backpage.com.
"These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist," they wrote.
In their letter, they also reminded the site's lawyers of a request last year from nearly two dozen attorneys general asking that its adult services ads be taken down.
"Traffickers who exploit runaways and other disadvantaged kids shouldn't be provided with a powerful online clearinghouse," McKenna said in a statement. "The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to take down adult services advertisements altogether and take aggressive steps to be sure such ads don't surface elsewhere on the site."
McKenna said children aren't capable, legally or otherwise, to consent to being sold for sex. And regardless of a prostitute's age, it's difficult to know whether the person advertised is being coerced.
In many cases involving human trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement finds that minors are, in fact, often coerced, he said.
McKenna said prosecutors in Benton County are currently handling a case in which teen girls say they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on Backpage.com. One of the adults rented a hotel room in Kennewick and forced the girls to have sex with men who answered the online ads, for which Backpage.com charges $1 and up.
Tennessee also has seen more cases of suspected human sex trafficking, Attorney General Roy Cooper said.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation noted in a recent joint study with Vanderbilt's Center for Community Studies that human trafficking and sex slavery in Tennessee is more common than previously believed possible.
The May 2011 study observed that Tennessee is especially attractive to traffickers because of its geographic location and proximity to major interstates and larger cities.
"We look forward to continuing to collaborate with attorneys general across the country as well as with the TBI and local law enforcement to raise awareness and fight this menace," Cooper said in a statement.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan agreed.
"The policies Backpage.com claims it has in place obviously are not working," she said in a statement. "We will not tolerate the sale of human beings and the exploitation of children. The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to eliminate the adult services advertisements and take aggressive steps to prohibit such posts elsewhere on the site."
Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media LLC, is the top provider of adult services advertisements.
The multimedia company, which owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States, has admitted its involvement in advertising illegal services.
In a meeting with staff at the Washington State Attorney General's Office, Village Voice board member Don Moon readily acknowledged prostitution ads appear on the website.
And in a June 29 article published nationally by the Village Voice, the corporation criticized those concerned about child sex trafficking as "prohibitionists bent on ending the world's oldest profession," acknowledging that, as a seller of adults services ads, "Village Voice has a stake in this story."
In fact, analysts suggest that Village Voice's stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.
But the state attorneys general believe that Backpage.com is attempting to minimize the impact of child sex trafficking because they fear it will turn attention to the company's robust prostitution advertising business.
While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the 46 attorneys general believe the site "sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact."
The letter from the attorneys general ask that the company willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena.
For example, to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, the attorneys general ask that Backpage.com describe in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes "illegal activity," and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category.
The attorneys general also ask, among other requests, how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since Sept. 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, how many were rejected and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services.
In 2008, 43 attorneys general reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like distributing child pornography and human trafficking.
Craigslist ultimately removed its erotic services section altogether in May 2009.
The 46 states included in the letter to Backpage.com are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming and the territory of Guam.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.