One needs only to visit the 'escorts' section of backpage.com or any of its contemporaries to see that modern slavery is a daily reality for some of our citizens, and that we, America, are allowing this to happen. Our country has a long history of confronting uncomfortable truths, and while we are often late in doing so, we eventually course correct. Even though we often disagree with what course correction is best, seldom do we disagree about the existence of the problem. Yes, the truth often has a way of making us feel uncomfortable, but only if we first recognize it as just that: the truth. Why then, have we not acknowledged the hard truth, that as a society we are allowing companies to facilitate the sale of children as sex slaves as?
Backpage.com, a company headquartered in Dallas, TX, fancies itself a 'Craigslist' type forum where people can sell their wares to buyers both locally and across the country. Unfortunately, the majority of the financial transactions taking place on backpage.com are from customers who are paying to advertise time with an 'escort,' some of whom are enslaved and forced to labor for the benefit of another. This is not prostitution. These victims do not keep the fruits of their labor. They are slaves, and the pimps who control them are nothing more than modern slave owners. US law defines the crime of sex trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age" (22 USC § 7102). Therefore, anyone under the control of another who conducts a sex act, where that control is perpetuated through fraud, force or coercion, or who is under 18 years old, is a victim of human trafficking, and the controller is guilty of the crime of human trafficking. Perhaps we should ask our lawmakers to add "advertising" to the law; after all, these traffickers cannot make sales if they cannot advertise. Websites like backpage.com allow traffickers to conduct their illicit business and perpetuate the abuse of their victims by allowing their platform to be used as a cost effective, low-risk advertiser of child and adult sex slaves. Essentially, backpage.com is the big-box-store of sex slavery, making it easy for slave holders to sell their victims to the broadest customer base. Backpage.com does not seem concerned that this is happening, and instead seems to be encouraging such activities in the name of protecting a revenue stream in excess of $20 million.
So why is this an issue you should care about? You probably have no use for a website like backpage.com, nor do you know anyone whose abuse was facilitated through websites like it. Well then meet J.S., S.L., and L.C, also known as Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2, and Jane Doe 3 in a pending lawsuit against backpage.com. All three of these girls were enslaved and sold on backpage.com as children. These victims, who were daughters and granddaughters, sisters and friends much like yours, were sold on a website that specifically evades law enforcement's efforts to find such girls by stripping out the metadata associated with their advertisers. No amount of 'missing kids' flyers on milk cartons were going to find these girls because their sale happened on the internet in places where you would never think to look. That's why we all should care; as a society we cannot tolerate the existence of slavery, nor can we allow the advertising and facilitation of child sex slaves.
When we first set out to build the counter human trafficking nonprofit, DeliverFund, we did not originally intend to work against the online advertising of child sex slaves, mainly because we did not realize how essential that advertising was to the sustainment and growth of human trafficking markets. We originally set out to help law enforcement officers arrest the traffickers, and that is a mission we execute daily, but that daily contact with the industry and those who fight it has shown us is how the cheap, low-risk advertising afforded human traffickers through websites like backpage.com, directly facilitates the large volume of business that has fueled the proliferation of human trafficking markets worldwide. If these modern slave owners were denied this low-risk advertising, they would be forced to revert to the traditional ways of advertising their products, which would in turn expose their business to the risk of being caught by law enforcement, or of their victims escaping their control. Either way, it would mean incarceration for the pimp and ideally freedom for the victim.
Backpage.com has made the argument that shutting down their website will cause the illicit sale of children to move to the dark web. The dark web, also known as the deep web, needs to be accessed using specialized software products like TOR, and while these software products are widely available and free, they are clunky and beyond the scope of your average purchaser of commercial sex. This "status quo" argument perpetuated by backpage.com is completely removed from reality and fails to consider the historical data that proves otherwise. In 2010, the owners of craigslist.com heroically made the decision to discontinue allowing their technology to be used to advertise child sex slaves. At the time, craigslist.com was the biggest medium for the online sale of sex slaves, but after that decision, the slave owners were forced to find a new place to sell their wares, and backpage.com positioned itself to absorb that business. The past is not a guarantee of the future, but it is an indicator, and the data from the 2010 craigslist decision suggests that the sale of children as sex slaves will not move to the the dark web if backpage.com is shut down. Ms. Liz McDougal, who was the attorney for craigslist.com, made that very argument back in 2010, and history has proven her wrong. Most interestingly, Ms. McDougal is now the attorney for backpage.com, and she is conveniently making the same argument in defense of her new client; she is wrong again.
These 'dark web' arguments are also a fundamental failure to understand the problem of human trafficking. Human trafficking in America is a volume business, so the traffickers need a big-box-store in order to conduct such a high volume of sales. Joseph Cox said it best in Wired Magazine when he wrote, "Not only are dark web visitors a drop in the bucket of TOR users, they are a spec of dust in the galaxy of total Internet users." In short, human traffickers will not be able to conduct the same volume of sales on the dark web that they currently do on the front facing internet, simply because the customer base is significantly smaller and harder to access. Human traffickers do not enslave people for ideological or political reasons; they enslave people to make large amounts of money without incurring high amounts of risk. Their reasons are that simple. Human trafficking generates significant revenue through a high volume of sales. High volume sales require a low risk, centralized advertising and retail outlet that is easy for the customer to find. Take away the centralized advertising and retail outlet and you decrease sales volume, which in turn decreases revenue. Decrease revenue and you decrease profits, thereby negating the whole reason the modern slave markets exist. However, if human traffickers did move their business to the dark web, as has been argued, the low customer base would suggest that less women and children would be sold, therefore, profits from trafficking would decrease exponentially and human traffickers would most likely deal in other commodities; ergo moving human trafficking activity to the dark web, though highly unlikely, would still be a win in the fight against modern slavery.
There are multiple solutions to the prolific and growing problem of modern slavery, and while some are legally complicated, the complicity of backpage.com and like online advertisers is not one of those complicated issues. The impact of the solutions to the online advertising of human beings is linearly predictable. One solution is for backpage.com to begin recording the IP addresses and associated metadata of all posts advertising time with an escort, which would create a wake of evidence that will assist law enforcement in finding and prosecuting the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Another solution is for Congress to enact laws that regulate sites like backpage.com. Regulation, however, is a slippery slope that opens the door to government overreach, so that is perhaps a nuclear option. The final solution is to force self-regulation by holding the owners of websites that facilitate such evils criminally and civilly accountable.
So what can you do? First, fight for those who have no voice by lending them yours; demand that sites like backpage.com either begin cooperating with law enforcement in a meaningful way, or shut down. Second, hold your national and local politicians accountable for the abysmal resources they have allocated toward this fight. And, third, support the groups who are on the front line of this fight daily. Sadly, our national attitude toward this issue has led to a passive acceptance; it is time we face this uncomfortable truth and course correct. Ernie Allen, the former Chief Executive of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said it best when he stated, “The goal is to destroy the business model of those who sell children for sex on the Internet.” At DeliverFund, we pursue that goal everyday. Won't you join us?