CNN’s Anderson Cooper Crushes Arguments of Village Voice

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By: Anderson Cooper, CNN

May 17, 2012 - Transcript – Anderson Cooper Attorneys General Call for Backpage.com to End Adult Services Ads -

COOPER: The most popular Internet site for escorts is called BackPage.com. And in recent weeks we’ve reported on growing pressure by law enforcement officials and anti-sex trafficking groups for BackPage to shut down its adult services section, the section where authorities say underage girls are sometimes sold for sex.

Now, last week I spoke with a lawyer for BackPage who said the site is not a prostitution site, does not encourage illegal activity. And they say it actually works hard with law enforcement to identify and track down child sex traffickers.

The country’s 51 attorneys general, however, are calling for BackPage adult section to be shut down. They say time and time again they’ve seen kids trafficked by pimps on BackPage. Here’s some of the reporting done by our own Deb Feyerick.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When we get a case involving the trafficking or prostitution, usually the story is going to start on BackPage.com.

“DAWN,” MOTHER OF SEX TRAFFICKING VICTIM: The daughter I know is a kid that likes to color.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (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 underaged girls for sex on BackPage.com.


COOPER: Well, last week I spoke with Liz McDougal, an attorney for Village Voice Media, which owns BackPage.com. She said the attorneys general are just pounding their chests.


LIZ MCDOUGAL, ATTORNEY FOR VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA: Talk to the people who really know how the Internet works and what’s going on on the ground, and they don’t agree. Talk to Dana Boyd at Harvard from the Berkman Institute on Internet and Society. Talk to David Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire. Talk to Dr. Mark Latinero that is now heading research on human trafficking and technology. There are a multitude of academics out there who are saying, as well as the vice cops on the ground, this is not the answer.


COOPER: Talking about shutting down the adult services section. She says it’s not the answer.

It took us a couple of days, but we did talk to the people she suggested would back up her argument that shutting the site down isn’t the answer.

The first one she mentioned didn’t want to comment. The second, David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, did talk to us. He said, quote, “They seem to be doing a very poor job of policing their site,” talking about BackPage, “and I think it would help the situation if BackPage were to shut down.”

She also mentioned Dr. Mark Latinero as someone who would back up her contention that, if BackPage shut down, the ads would definitely be pushed further underground to sites that wouldn’t cooperate with law enforcement.

Latinero told us, “Maybe that’s true, but maybe it isn’t.” He said there’s simply not enough credible data to predict at this point.

Liz McDougal also claimed that BackPage wants to be the sheriffs of the Internet. That’s the term she uses. I said to her, well, then how come the real sheriffs, the states’ attorneys general, want it shut down? Here’s what she said.


MCDOUGAL: If you talk to the vice officers on the ground — and I provided a list of those officers to your producer to talk to — they say just the opposite. They say that BackPage is the most cooperative and one of the most valuable tools they have. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VELEZ-MITCHELL: “Keeping Them Honest,” though, that’s not really what police officers told us, not by a long shot.

From New York, quote, “The NYPD does not agree with the Village Voice Media lawyer. ‘The Village Voice‘ and its ads are part of the problem. ‘The Village Voice’ is making a buck at the expense of exploiting women.”

From Las Vegas, the police department there, quote, “Nothing that in any way promotes criminal activity and trafficking of underage individuals is supported by this or any other law enforcement organization. To say that we want these sites up so we can track them is a misstatement.”

From Los Angeles from the LAPD, quote, “I have never received a call from BackPage.com indicating that there are suspicious ads.”

Now, to be fair, the law enforcement officer that McDougal gave us contact information for in San Francisco did back up a lot of what she had to say, but even he, speaking for himself and not on behalf of the police department on a whole, suggested that BackPage should donate the tens of millions of dollars they apparently make on adult services ads each year.

Quote, “If it’s not about money and it’s just about law enforcement, then take your money and give it to groups that support victims of human trafficking, and you’ll have a clear conscience.”

So let’s just talk about the money that BackPage is making. More than $2.5 million in ad revenues in the month of March alone, according to a group called AIM. That’s a conservative estimate.

Liz McDougal says it’s not about money. That was her line when we talked about why BackPage isn’t verifying the ages of the people who are advertised on the site. Why not actually make the people go to a local BackPage office in person and show an I.D.? Here’s what she said.


MCDOUGAL: Money is not the issue. The issue is how do you functionally implement this?

COOPER: Unless the person comes directly in and you have to show an I.D.

MCDOUGAL: Right. Which, if you have any knowledge and understanding of how the Internet works, is a practical impossibility in the Internet realm.

COOPER: Do you know when you’ll be able to decide whether or not you can do that, whether you can have physical verification?

MCDOUGAL: It’s a matter of exploring and programming and collaboration with other service — online service providers, other technology providers, with law enforcement.


COOPER: So what about that idea of actually having a physical office in various locations that someone has to come to show an I.D.? We’ll let law enforcement have the last word on that.

This from the LAPD. Quote, “I would certainly support the idea of offices set up to verify someone’s age. If we can do anything to rescue and save our children from getting caught up in sexual exploitation, we should do it.”

Now, BackPage.com says one of its biggest allies is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but it turned out the head of that organization, Ernie Allen, is actually one of its biggest critics also. He wants BackPage to remove the adult services section.

I spoke with him and with “New York Times” columnist Nick Kristof, who’s done a lot of reporting on this issue.


COOPER: Ernie, Liz McDougal often says — she cites your organization as someone that BackPage works with, and she says that they’re part of the solution, not part of the problem. To that you say what?

ERNIE ALLEN, NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING AND EXPLOITED CHILDREN: Well, I say yes, they’ve been working with us, as have 900 other Internet companies. We are the central repository of reports for child sexual exploitation in this country. And we commend their reporting.

But reporting and screening is not a panacea, and it’s not a solution to the problem. Our goal is to end the sexual trafficking of children, not simply to create reports.

COOPER: They portray themselves as the sheriffs of the Internet and that they’re all about, you know, stopping illegal activity. Do you buy that?

ALLEN: I don’t. What is happening is that the Internet has become the primary resource, the information clearinghouse for the purchase of children for sex and for illegal prostitution. We’ve got to do more.

And the reality is what law enforcement is telling us, is that these leads aren’t terribly useful in most cases. Because the pimps are smart and they don’t always post the photo of the person who shows up at the hotel room, or they don’t post photos at all, or there’s misleading information. These are very difficult cases for law enforcement to work.

COOPER: So while shutting down BackPage.com would not end child trafficking, and no one is making that argument, do you think it would be a step in the right direction? ALLEN: I certainly do. We worked for two years with Craigslist in the same way. They reported to us aggressively. They screened and monitored. After two years, they concluded that it wasn’t working and that they needed to do something else.

One of the challenges with sites like Craigslist and BackPage is they’re so multi-faceted. It’s a site where you can look at a job ad, you can sell your used car, you can buy a toaster and also, you can buy a kid for sex.

COOPER: And you think that, in a way, normalizes the illegal activity?

ALLEN: I don’t think there’s any question but that it not only normalizes it, but facilitates it.

COOPER: Nick, what BackPage.com, their attorneys say, is “Look, if we shut down, these ads and these customers are just going to gravitate to shadier areas of the Internet: offshore, foreign countries that aren’t even reporting to a group like Ernie’s.”

NICK KRISTOF, “NEW YORK TIMES”: And there will be those who do. I mean, there is going to be some migration.

But if you’re talking about bank robbers, you don’t, well, say there’s no point in arresting these bank robbers, because there will be others that will take their place. You do what you can.

In the case of BackPage, with 81 percent of the market for prostitution advertising, it would make, I think, a vast difference. Sure, there will be some who are going to find other forum, but it would make a huge dent in the business.

COOPER: Do you agree with that, Ernie, that some customers will not necessarily track down other more specific sites?

ALLEN: Well, I think it was proven by the decision that Craigslist made. The volume of ads dropped dramatically when Craigslist shut down its adult ads. Some of that migrated to BackPage, but much of it hasn’t.

COOPER: I think a lot of people — and I was surprised to hear this, Ernie, because BackPage says, “Well, look, we report to your organization. We send the information and photos.” But I was surprised to learn they don’t actually take down the ads of people they believe might be children.

ALLEN: Well, and much of that is because law enforcement wants the ads to stay up so that they can investigate them and try to develop the nexus with the purchasers.

But one of the real challenges with these ads, and reporting the ads, you know, we handled 326,000 reports last year, most of them for child pornography. When we get an ad — or we get a report with a child pornography image, that’s contraband. That’s illegal in and of itself. So when we send that to law enforcement, they can act immediately.

When we send an ad with a picture of somebody who may or may not be the person being advertised, who may or may not be a kid, who may or may not be engaged in broader kinds of illegal activities, what’s law enforcement supposed to do with that? And it’s frustrating to law enforcement.

COOPER: So the sheer volume of stuff they’re sending you is not– is not indicative of stuff that’s actually being helpful, some of is it is just too much?

ALLEN: Some of is it not helpful, some of it is. Some of it has led to prosecutions. But again, our goal is not just three or four successful prosecutions; it’s ending the problem.

COOPER: You also make the point that just because somebody is 18 years old doesn’t mean that they haven’t been trafficked for years before that.

ALLEN: Not only does it not mean that they haven’t been trafficked for years before that, but by the accident of their birth, it suddenly doesn’t make their behavior voluntary and consensual. We believe there are 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds and probably older who are being trafficked, who are being victimized, who are not engaging in this in a willful, intentional way.

COOPER: Nick, you call for advertisers to pull out of advertising with Village Voice Media, and many have. Starbucks, Best Buy, Ikea. Some of these big advertisers. Do you think that’s the solution?

KRISTOF: I mean, it’s really painful as a journalist to suggest that advertisers drop advertising in a newspaper. I have tremendous admiration for “Village Voice” as a newspaper, for its history. It has done some great reporting more recently.

But at the end of the day, you can’t fund great reporting by advertisements for underage girls being sold for sex.

COOPER: Nick Kristof, I appreciate it. Ernie Allen, thank you very much.

KRISTOF: Thank you.

COOPER: We invited BackPage attorney Liz McDougal to come on the program again. We didn’t actually hear back until less than an hour before the show started.

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