For the past decade, anti-trafficking NGOs, politicians, and sex trafficked victim plaintiffs have been lobbying and litigating against online erotic advertisement websites, in an attempt to eradicate prostitution ads. The crux behind their argument is that the websites like Backpage.com facilitate sex trafficking, in particular of minor victims. While the legal accountability of erotic review and advertisement websites has thus far been precluded by 47 U.S.C. § 230, a law Congress enacted in 1996 to protect websites from liability for third party content, the lawsuits and congressional hearings regarding these practices keep coming, with increased regularity.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to cite Backpage.com for contempt of Congress after CEO Carl Ferrer failed to show for a congressional hearing on sex trafficking. However, what these senators seemingly fail to understand is that minor sex trafficking will continue, regardless of whether advertisements are posted online. Moreover, for the past decade, online commercial sex advertisements and erotic review sites have actually served as critical tools for law enforcement to identify and rescue victims of sex trafficking.
For example, ABC recently posted a Nightline special, “Daughters for Sale: How American Girls Are Being Sold Online.” The investigative piece profiled “Natalie,” a woman suing Backpage.com after she was sold for sex over 100 times allegedly through the website. According to the story, Natalie “firmly believes that the site made it possible for her pimp to post ads offering her for sex over and over again.”
Legislators and anti-trafficking advocates were quick to support these claims, despite the fact that on the 108th night “Natalie” was missing, her Backpage ad was targeted in a sting set up by the Seattle Vice Squad, which led to her rescue and a 26-year sentence for her trafficker. In other words, the advertisements posted on Backpage.com were the investigative catalyst to her rescue and the successful prosecution of her victimizer.
The use of Backpage.com as an investigative tool for law enforcement is not isolated to Natalie’s case. A simple Google search will reveal dozens of stories on federal and local law enforcement officers who used erotic review and advertisement websites to initiate investigations, leading to the identification and rescue of sex trafficking victims, as well as the prosecution of their offenders. Moreover, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “73 percent of the reports they receive from the general public about suspected underage trafficking involve a Backpage post.”
If online erotic review and advertisement posts are critical tools, used by the public and law enforcement across the country to identify and investigate sex trafficking, why are legislators trying to force the commercial sex trade back underground? Perhaps the reasoning centers on Backpage.com’s $173 million yearly revenue; a proverbial deeper pocket than the sex traffickers who actually victimize these women and children. Or maybe Backpage.com is just another sacrificial lamb in the war against human trafficking – its persecution a symbolic act, not to actually address the human trafficking scourge in our country, but to garner public accolade? Like many anti-trafficking interventions in the United States, the legal and political attacks against Backpage.com may be more about money and symbolic advocacy, as opposed to actual accountability or effective anti-trafficking policy.
Ultimately, the public, politicians, and anti-trafficking advocates need to understand that preventing commercial sex advertisements from being posted on open-access online forums, and holding the websites civilly liable for third-party posts, will not reduce the incidence of juvenile sex trafficking; instead, it may actually make it more difficult to identify.
Author Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio.