Arizona Republic: Village Voice’s “Backpage.com facing growing criticism”

Phoenix, AZ|Village Voice Pimps|Add Comment
By: JJ Hensley, The Arizona Republic
Phoenix New Times

The online ads are short and simple, promoting girls like “Cinnamon” and her quest for a male companion.

“French and black bored looking for fun plus seeking generous male I love,” read an ad posted Wednesday by Cinnamon, 21, asking men to meet her in central Phoenix.

To activists trying to elevate awareness of human trafficking, the ads at Backpage .com are, at best, a conduit for prostitution. But some see them as more malignant, suggesting that the ads are a way for Village Voice Media to profit off teens who are being trafficked and sexually exploited.

The critics have recently become more vocal, aiming full-page ads and boycotts at Phoenix-based Village Voice Media, the alternative-media conglomerate that owns New York’s Village Voice, weeklies in many U.S. cities including Phoenix New Times, and the online classified website, which hosts ads for services in hundreds of cities in 43 states, 11 foreign countries and a handful of Caribbean islands.

Police do not take so radical a view as to believe that Village Voice Media would knowingly become involved in promoting criminal activity — but, Backpage is one constant in Valley prostitution investigations, according to officers.

“The Phoenix Police Department is not in a position to say that Backpage or any other website is complicit in any form of human trafficking. We get the vast majority of our work from monitoring Backpage and other sites, because that’s where the victims are,” said Lt. Jim Gallagher, a commander in the Phoenix vice unit. “We can’t avoid the obvious, which is, Backpage is a common thread in our investigations.”

Police nationwide say Backpage employees have been cooperative with law-enforcement officers investigating prostitution and human trafficking, and the company occasionally volunteers information that has been useful to police in their work.

Advertising adult services

The recent arrest of Rachael Dawn Kellogg Swank, 23, opens a window into the world of Backpage and illustrates why police often focus on the advertising venue. Swank is alleged to have prostituted a 15-year-old runaway in Phoenix.

Officers saturated known prostitution tracks and websites promoting “adult services” during a two-day sweep in April. The plan was to offer suspected prostitutes enrollment in a diversion program that could provide immediate counseling and keep the arrest off every suspect’s record.

An undercover detective contacted a woman he found on Backpage and arranged to meet her at a Mesa hotel, where the detective would pay $100 each for sex with two different women, according to police records. Detectives also learned that a 15-year-old girl was possibly being advertised online as an escort.

When detectives arrived at the hotel and met Swank, who was allegedly the woman arranging sex online, they found her with the 15-year-old runaway, according to court documents.

“During an interview with the 15-year-old, I learned that she had never prostituted prior to meeting (Swank), and she told me that (Swank) taught her all about how to be a prostitute. Which included placing the ad for escorting on the Internet,” court documents said.

Swank pleaded not guilty in her initial court appearance.

The 15-year-old later told a detective she had sex with two men for $80 each, according to records. She said she met Swank on a Mesa street and the conversation eventually turned to prostitution, which is not unusual for teenage runaways, said Phoenix police Detective Heidi Chance.

“Unfortunately a lot of the runaways do fall in this lifestyle for some reason, maybe they’re preyed upon,” she said. “It’s not unique or different than anything I’ve seen before. The only difference may be that her family was still actively seeing detectives.”

In the weeks after the sweep, due in part to heavier saturation on the streets, detectives arrested six underage girls working as prostitutes, Gallagher said. Many of the girls were advertised on websites like Backpage, according to police.

Conflicting estimates

But no one can say with any authority how many cases like that are out there. Estimates vary widely.

Anti-trafficking awareness groups estimate there are as many as 300,000 men, women and children who are the victims of human trafficking, many of whom would work as prostitutes.

Law-enforcement statistics are less jarring: Between 2005 and 2011, local law-enforcement agencies submitted 36 cases to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in which suspects were said to have violated human-trafficking statutes.

Last year, Village Voice Media publications ran a story entitled “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight,” which, in the eyes of many critics, tried to minimize the problem.

“Law-enforcement records show that there were only 8,263 arrests across America for child prostitution during the most recent decade,” the authors wrote. “That’s 827 arrests per year.”

But since then, Village Voice Media has hired Liz McDougall, an attorney who formerly worked with Craigslist when that website also came under attack for allegedly facilitating sexual exploitation. McDougall’s mandate: fight human trafficking and try to develop a comprehensive approach to adult-services advertisements that can be implemented throughout the industry. That includes McDougall having final say on what the publisher prints about Backpage and its critics, she said.

“Village Voice Media came out swinging in its defense, consistent with its journalistic history, but that didn’t do any favors to the work Backpage is trying to do to proactively address the problem,” she said. “I simply don’t believe that taking down an adult category is the right answer to fighting human trafficking.”

Working toward those twin goals — reforming the online adult-services industry and keeping Backpage alive — McDougall said she is internally streamlining posting procedures to make it easier for Backpage staff members to spot potential pimps. The website also added a link to an emergency help line in case someone posting an ad decides they want to get out of prostitution.

The company also has 80 people committed to policing the site. It makes an average of 400 reports per month to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when it finds ads for women who are under 21 years old, she said.

Those efforts are not enough for critics like Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work who focuses, in part, on girls and women involved in prostitution.

“Almost all of the hundreds of victims of sex trafficking I have worked with in the past two years have been put on Backpage.com, some by their pimps, some by their mothers, some by their best friends,” Roe-Sepowitz said. “This is an ugly issue, one that we must not turn away from to allow for free enterprise.”

Company refuses to end ads

But McDougall said simply removing adult content from the website is not a viable solution to the human-trafficking problem Backpage’s critics have seized on.

“My greatest concern is that the activity will just be driven to offshore websites,” McDougall said.

“Understandably, people want a silver bullet to this horrible problem,” she said. “Craigslist did shut down its adult category, but it wasn’t the silver bullet. The ads migrated elsewhere to the Craigslist website and then a large portion of the ads migrated to Backpage. Then the movement, the anti-trafficking movement, just shifted. They got what they said they wanted from Craigslist and then they moved on to Backpage.”

McDougall said that if the ads move offshore, the advertisers move outside the jurisdiction of most U.S. law-enforcement agencies, and policing the activity on their websites or asking operators to cooperate with investigators becomes impossible.

Yet critics claim there are other reasons Village Voice Media will not shut down the site.

A consulting company estimated adult ads on Backpage generated $2.6 million in online revenue during March, a figure McDougall would not confirm, citing the Village Voice Media’s status as a private company.

The company’s long history of taking a stand in the face of fierce opposition also plays a role, McDougall said, noting: “The company has historically had the backbone to stand on principle against substantial pressure — political, public, economic — that’s the intention right now.”

The pressure Village Voice Media faces is not unique, said Tim McGuire, an ASU professor of business and ethics in journalism. McGuire said both sides in the controversy are making arguments that are fundamentally true, but the ultimate decision rests with readers and advertisers.

“The cops are correct, but the fact is the Internet is a giant uncontrollable blob. Institutions like police and newspapers and major corporations have lost control. To think that one player, like the New Times, is going to change the cops’ problems, I think is naive,” McGuire said. “Both are arguably true, and you as a publisher have to make that call and contend with the consequences. It may be fewer people picking up the publication, it may be advertisers choosing not to advertise.”

Regardless of the outcome, the controversy with Backpage has again focused attention on the topic of human trafficking, an interest that began, McDougall believes, with the focus on Craigslist advertising.

That attention is not necessarily a bad thing, according to law-enforcement officers and anti-trafficking advocates.

Groups including former state Sen. Russell Pearce‘s Ban Amnesty Now, which previously focused on driving undocumented immigrants out of the U.S., has developed a new interest in fighting human trafficking thanks in part to Pearce’s disdain for the New Times. The former lawmaker has been a frequent target of the publication’s political screeds.

Pearce’s group has taken credit for the departures this year of several New Times advertisers, but the controversy has not been all bad for Backpage. Though McDougall would not confirm it, one survey reported that unique visitors to the site increased by more than 8 percent in March.

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