Is Backpage.com Sex Trade Central?
Backpage.com is accused of being a marketplace for pimps to peddle prostitution and exploit young women. The company says there’s nothing illegal about it, though 51 attorneys general want to shut it down.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.
And we begin tonight "Keeping Them Honest" in a corner of the Internet that's accused of being a marketplace for pimps to peddle prostitution and exploit young women.
That's the allegation being leveled against Backpage.com's adult services classified ads. Fifty-one attorneys general in the United States want it shut down. So do 19 U.S. senators, 600 religious leaders, nearly a quarter million people who have already signed a petition.
They want it shut down for running ads like these, from the escort section of Backpage's New York site. One reads, "You will feel right at home at our place. Stress relief by beautiful Asian girls." Stress relief.
Or this, "Seductive, ready to rock your world. Call me," the ad says, "to enjoy all you can handle." The advertiser claims to be 19 years old. Now those are two of literally thousands of ads that you might find on Backpage right now. That company, Back Page defends the adult section saying that if pimps are going to advertise it's better to do it someplace where authorities can track activity and help women in trouble.
But "Keeping Them Honest," are they? We spoke to Backpage and some of the mothers of teen victims. Now, we have changed their names to protect their children.
Deborah Feyerick tonight reports.
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): How would you feel, for example, I mean, as a mother if you saw an ad like this, or an ad like this? Or I mean, this -- this girl, she says she's 19. If you saw your daughter in this, like this, what --
LIZ MCDOUGALL, VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA, LLC: I would be horrified and I'm horrified for those mothers, and my heart goes out to those mothers. And to their daughters who are victims of exploitation.
FEYERICK (on camera): Am I wrong? Isn't prostitution simply illegal?
MCDOUGALL: Prostitution is illegal. And we don't permit illegal activity on the Web site.
FEYERICK: What are they selling?
MCDOUGALL: But we have -- there are legal adult entertainment services.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are playing a role in this problem.
FEYERICK: Attorney Liz McDougall is doing at Backpage.com which she tried and arguably failed to do as a lawyer for the Web site Craigslist. com, specifically try to convince people what's advertised in the adult section is legal, not only the services for sale, but the ages of girls selling it. It's not an easy job when prosecutors are demanding it be shut down.
JOHN CHOI, RAMSEY COUNTY, MINNESOTA, ATTORNEY: When we get a case involving the trafficking of prostitution, usually the story is going to start on Backpage.com.
DAWN, MOTHER: The daughter I know is a kid that likes to color.
FEYERICK (voice-over): For Dawn, that's exactly where the story took her 15-year-old girl. A child who apparently ran away with a man who seduced her online. Within days that man had posted pictures of the child on Backpage.com, selling the girl into prostitution. Allegations detailed in a criminal complaint.
DAWN: He officially took her and beat her into submission to raping her, and then held her into prostitution. It totally, totally crushed me to know that somebody actually did this to her.
FEYERICK: The accused pimp in that case has pleaded not guilty pending trial. It's one of more than 50 cases in 22 states, of people charged with advertising under aged girls for sex on Backpage.com. The classified ad Web site, similar to Craig's list, lets people post all kinds of ads in different states. When you look at the escort section, there's little doubt what's for sale.
(on camera): Some would say all you're doing is legitimizing prostitution. That you're in the prostitution business.
MCDOUGALL: We're not in the prostitution business when we're doing everything possible to impede prostitution, to impede the exploitation of women, children, boys, men, laborers, sex trafficking. We're -- the Internet is, unfortunately, the vehicle for this. We are trying to be the sheriff.
FEYERICK (voice-over): Backpage is the leading Web site for adult service ads in the U.S. McDougall argues it's better to have these ads on a Web site that works with law enforcement to stop child exploitation than it is to drive it underground or offshore where U.S. laws don't apply.
"Keeping Them Honest," we asked Backpage if it considers itself part of the problem. MCDOUGALL: If we had a silver bullet to eradicate it, we would. But in the meantime what we can do is to be the best allies possible with law enforcement.
FEYERICK (on camera): But isn't the silver bullet shutting it down?
MCDOUGALL: No. I wish that it were. You -- as you can see, when Craigslist shut down, people had said that was the silver bullet and that made no difference.
FEYERICK (voice-over): No difference because people simply moved their erotic ads over to Backpage.com. And that's meant huge dollars, almost $27 million last year, according to aim, an Internet research group.
You benefited, you picked up the slack, you filled the void, you made --
MCDOUGALL: You're right. A tremendous number of the ads came to us.
FEYERICK: Adult service ad sales were $3 million in March, up more than 30 percent from a year ago. Backpage says they monitor ad content, targeting some 25,000 terms and code words used by traffickers. It then checks ads manually before posting. Yet ads like this are not hard to find.
(on camera): I'm having a hard time with this, too. Make me beg, smack me, spit on me, degrade me, choke me --
FEYERICK (voice-over): The policy prohibits ads selling sex for money. Yet ask this mom we'll call Violet.
What was your initial reaction when you clicked on escorts?
VIOLET, MOTHER: I was actually disgusted. All I saw was naked behinds. Naked breasts.
FEYERICK: Violet's 14-year-old daughter ran away. And police say she was later prostituted by a man she met at a bus stop who advertised her on Backpage. co Backpage.com.
VIOLET: The worst part was the torture I had to hear about. You know the torture she endured from different people along her way.
FEYERICK (on camera): Her daughter was missing for more than three years. It just seems morally wrong to have this as a business model, no?
MCDOUGALL: To me it would be morally wrong to have the opportunity to rescue women, children, boys, out of exploitation, and to walk away from that opportunity. (END VIDEOTAPE)
COOPER: Well, that was Deb Feyerick reporting.
"New York times" columnist Nicholas Kristof has been on the front lines in the fight against human trafficking and California's attorney general, Kamala Harris, signed that petition calling on Backpage to shut down the ads. I spoke to them earlier this week.
COOPER: You've been tireless on shining a light on sex trafficking, and especially of children. It is one thing for it to be overseas somewhere, you know, brothels in Cambodia that you follow. But it's another thing for it to be in the United States and to have large corporations profiting off it.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF, COLUMNIST, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. I mean, I think that I was also struck by the fact that it's not just foreign women being smuggled into the U.S. The great majority of it seems to be local, domestic girls who are being trafficked in every city around the country, and on a Web site that is run by a substantial company that also owns "Village Voice." And that was, until recently, owned by some major financiers on wall street.
COOPER: And then they make a lot of money off this thing. Assuming --
KRISTOF: We think that they make around $23 million a year on those online revenues. I must say that the company itself has been losing money like a lot of newspapers on the rest of the business.
COOPER: Right. But for the company, it's a profit center that funds other things that they're losing money on.
KRISTOF: Really the prostitution ad is what is keeping the rest of the company going to some degree.
COOPER: Attorney Kamala Harris, late last year I interviewed a guy named Ed McNally. He was then Backpage.com law enforcement adviser. I just want to play a clip of what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: You also said your company is committed on the Web site to quote "preventing those who are intent on misusing the site for illegal purposes." Isn't prostitution an illegal purpose?
ED MCNALLY, BACKPAGE.COM: Well, first of all, what we are really focused on more than anything is the protection of the people in our society who are most vulnerable. And most of our filters, most of our mitigation efforts, most of our law enforcement efforts are really focused on preventing human trafficking and especially the most vulnerable, which is children.
(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Do you buy that? I mean, they're painting themselves here as kind of heroes, that they're the ones looking out for the best interests of children, of the most vulnerable in society, and they claim they have all these mitigation efforts and lots of letters from local law enforcement who said they're doing a great job.
KAMALA HARRIS, CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, they're also in possession of a letter from all of the attorneys general of the United States expressing deep concern about what they have done in terms of facilitating human trafficking, exploitation of children.
COOPER: How is what they're doing legal? I mean, if prostitution is illegal, how is what they're doing legal?
HARRIS: I have heard them make a first amendment argument. But here's the reality of it. This is not just an international issue. This is something that very much is an issue of the kid in Kansas who's the runaway, who's trafficked to Las Vegas and then brought in to be prostituted on Hollywood boulevard. It's a very real issue.
Backpage.com has been proven to be the marketplace with which these illegal transactions occur. And they need to be responsible. They need to be responsible corporate citizens. We have a history of this issue with Craigslist, and they did the right thing and I think Backpage needs to do it, too.
COOPER: But, Nick, as you know, Backpage says that they're actually, you know, being responsible. They have mitigation efforts. They have review efforts. And that they're being responsible on this.
KRISTOF: It's true that Backpage does respond very quickly to subpoenas, for example, and they do cooperate with law enforcement.
COOPER: But they also, you know, supporters of this will say, well, look, you eliminate it from Backpage, you eliminate it from Craigslist, it's going to go elsewhere. It is going to go to some other site that doesn't have, you know -- that doesn't respond to subpoenas, that isn't as public as Backpage.com.
KRISTOF: Some of it will go elsewhere. I mean, if you arrest ten bank robbers there may well be five more to take your place. But they won't be fully replaced. And Backpage right now, as far as we can tell, controls 80 percent of the prostitution ad market. That's a huge amount. They attract mainstream customers. Some of the other Web sites are really more pornographic. If Backpage gets out of the escort ad business that will make a real dent in this trade.
COOPER: Attorney general Harris, as you said earlier you, along with others attorneys general have written letters demanding Backpage shut down the adult services section. Is there anything legally can you do to actually force them to close?
HARRIS: We can issue subpoenas. We certainly are, and in fact, have requested a great deal of information from them about what they are seeing in terms of the complaints they have received. What knowledge they have about underage individuals being trafficked on their site.
But it doesn't mean that because we are constantly in the pursuit of justice and we are constantly challenged with -- with criminal justice issues that we don't begin and we don't deal with any of them. The reality is Backpage has proven to be a thriving marketplace. In the issue of human trafficking is a $32 billion industry in this country -- in the world. And let's be very clear about the underlying issue here. It's not necessarily a vice issue.
It's the issue that -- that there are individuals, and companies, and they can be cartels or they can be Backpage, who are making a huge amount of money off the trafficking of human beings. Many of them who are underage girls. And that should be an issue of concern and therefore priority for all of us.
COOPER: Craigslist bowed ultimately to public pressure. Has Backpage so far, Nick, has not done that. You say targeting advertisers in the "Village Voice" would be most effective.
KRISTOF: Yes. I think that public pressure is helpful on Backpage and there is, indeed, a petition on change. org to put pressure on them. But ultimately I think what matters to them is money. And I think if they see that they're going to lose more money in advertising in "Village Voice" and the other regional newspapers they control, then, it's not worth it to them. And then they will exit the -- this prostitution ad market.
COOPER: "The Village Voice," Nick, as you know, is questioning your reporting, particularly one article about a former prostitute name Alissa, who says she was sold on Backpage.com at a time when it didn't exist in cities that she was in. How do you respond?
KRISTOF: That's completely false. I applied to them, they said that she had turned 16, in I think 2003. She turned 16 on December 30, 2003. And indeed throughout 2004, she was 16 years old. And was being marketed on Backpage, in one city after another, and I could show them that Backpage was operating, and of course, throughout that time.
And, I mean, there's no shortage of girls, underage girls, 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls who are being marketed on Backpage as we speak. I really encourage your viewers should go to Backpage in your city and look at it. And I think they'll be horrified by what they see.
COOPER: Nick Kristof. Appreciate it. Attorney General Harris, thank you.
COOPER: Do you believe that Backpage.com when they say they're not running a site for legal prostitution and if they are do you believe shutting them down will make a difference?
Let me know. We're on Facebook, Google+ or talk to me on Twitter right now @AndersonCooper.