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CNN’s Anderson Cooper Interviews Village Voice Attorney Liz McDougal

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By: Anderson Cooper, CNN

Another “Keeping Them Honest” report about backpage.com, the leading web site for adult service ads. Now last week, we reported on the growing push to shut down the web site’s adult services section where law officials say underage girls are sold for sex. That was on Friday.

On Monday, U.S. Congressman Robert Turner from New York introduced a House resolution calling for Village Boys Media Holding, which owns backpage.com to shut down the ads immediately. Pressure on the web site has been building for months.

The country’s 51 attorneys general, 19 U.S. senators, 600 religious leaders, more than 50 NGOs and a petition with more than 230,000 signatures are all calling on the media company to shut down its classified ad adult services section.

But tonight backpage.com is not backing down one inch. To understand the outrage over backpage.com, take a look at what CNN’s Deborah Feyerick found in a recent report she did for 360.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN CHOI, RAMSEY COUNTY, MINNESOTTA ATTORNEY: When we get a case involving the trafficking of prostitution, usually the story is going to start on backpage.com.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The daughter I know is a kid that likes to color.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For Dawn that’s 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,” MOTHER OF GIRL ADVERTISED ON BACKPAGE.COM: 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: The New York City Council recently held hearings on a resolution to stop those Backpage ads. One of the people testified described how she ended up with a pimp after running away from home. She told her story from behind a screen to protect her privacy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

“BRIANNA,” GIRL ADVERTISED ON BACKPAGE.COM: The main way that he felt that he made the most money was through Backpage. At this time, I’m 12 years old and Backpage sent me at least 35 dates a night.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: She says 35 dates a night at the age of 12. Liz McDougal the lawyer for backpage.com also testified at the hearing. She says shutting down Backpage will only make it harder to actually catch child predators and sex traffickers.

The ads people run in Backpage brought in almost $27 million last year according to the internet research firm, Aim Group, after Craigslist shut down its adult services section back in 2010.

The ads migrated to Backpage and that has obviously been something of a windfall for the parent company. Liz McDougal joins me now. Thanks very much for being with us.

You say that this is not a site for prostitution. But any reading of these ads, I mean, can you really say with a straight face it is not a prostitution site?

LIZ MCDOUGALL, LAWYER FOR VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA: What I say is that this is a site where any illegal activity is unwelcome, human trafficking, child sexual exploitation and illegal prostitution.

COOPER: But it is full of ads for illegal activity?

MCDOUGALL: Well, we actually have more than 85 percent of our content has nothing to do with the adult category.

COOPER: But that is where you make your money?

MCDOUGALL: No, we charge on a multitude of categories. This is one category where there is income. We are a business. We do make money.

But keep in mind that we have 80 percent of our staff dedicated to policing and to cooperating with law enforcement to prevent cases of exploitation from ever making it live on the internet.

So that we can facilitate rescues and so that we can cooperate with law enforcement to ensure convictions when there are those opportunities.

COOPER: But there are ads, which are just clearly for prostitution. I mean, I looked at these ads for a brief amount of time. You can find ones, you know, saying very slim Filipino Dominican hottie. She says I’m all about good times and freaky pleasures. Another one says come to my garden and enjoy the rose bush. Do you think she is a gardener, I mean?

MCDOUGALL: I don’t think she is a gardener. But there’s no — one of the challenges in this area is that there is not a black and white line between legal sex work and illegal sex work.

Prostitution is illegal, but there is legal sex work of a variety of kinds and particularly in this economy. There are people who are engaging in legal sex works as the only means to be able to pay their bills and to survive.

COOPER: So you believe –

MCDOUGALL: And we are doing our best to find the lines between what is illegal activity and what is not. To do that better and we want to do that better, we need more collaboration with law enforcement and with NGOs and with projects like CNN’s freedom program that is trying to focus on preventing exploitation.

COOPER: But to say that you want to be the sheriff’s of the internet, which is what you’ve said in interviews before. It just seems disingenuous. The actually sheriffs the states attorneys general want to shut you down.

MCDOUGALL: The states attorneys general aren’t the actual sheriff. 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 –

COOPER: I have also talked to law enforcement –

MCDOUGALL: — for rescuing victims and for getting the evidence for a conviction furthermore –

COOPER: You do respond to law enforcement and they appreciate that as does the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I have talked to law enforcement though who also say, you know, they wish you would shut down. There are plenty of police out there who believe you are basically just providing a huge street corner for prostitutes to work on.

MCDOUGALL: Well, I would disagree because the law enforcement that we talk to repeatedly — we have hundreds and thousands of e-mails of accolades for our assistance. But the point is not just to assist them in stings and stalking the perpetrators when they’re online.

We are actively pursuing rescues. Since January of this year, I can give you at least four examples of rescues. In January, we rescued a child in Seattle, Washington because our moderators — before the ad got online, identified this as a potentially exploited minor. We reported to Nick Mick … NCMEC. [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children]

COOPER: There are other ads, which, you know, — there was an ad that a woman writes about make me beg, spit on me, degrade me that CNN found just recently. MCDOUGALL: As I explained to Deborah if that language got through it should not have. That was a mistake and mistakes happen with human moderation –

COOPER: But you are saying in order to stop prostitution, which is an illegal activity you need to give pimps websites. Does that make sense?

MCDOUGALL: What you say doesn’t make sense because we are not giving the pimps web sites.

COOPER: You’re giving them advertising.

MCDOUGALL: That is a factor of the internet and the internet is not going away.

COOPER: There are plenty of places to advertise, but you are giving them the most well organized, biggest one since Craiglist has gone away.

MCDOUGALL: Actually My Red Book is currently the biggest one — if you would like to call them. But the fact is –

COOPER: You are a big slice of this pie.

MCDOUGALL: There are according to Shared Hope International approximately 5,000 web sites that permit adult advertising and we could drive this traffic to other ones like Arrows, like My Red Book that are off shore and that have no interest in cooperating. And that two, we can’t get when they are off shore.

COOPER: Just because there are other bad actors doesn’t mean that what you are doing is right.

MCDOUGALL: It’s right because we enable rescues and convictions. The other sites won’t and don’t.

COOPER: You say you don’t allow underage people. You have no way of verifying whether or not somebody is underage. You just have to check off whether the person just says I’m over 18.

MCDOUGALL: We do far more. We have filters for terms and two tiers –

COOPER: They can lie in the ad about it though.

MCDOUGALL: They can lie in the ad. We have people examining the images to try to identify if someone is underage.

COOPER: The U.S. Conference of Mayors has asked you just this week to actually have physical verification. There are some websites that somebody who wants to place an ad actually has to go to an office and show an ID. You could have that in every city that you’re offering.
Why don’t you do that?

MCDOUGALL: I was so glad to get that letter from the mayors this week because finally, some elected officials are taking an intelligent approach to this problem.

COOPER: So would you consent to do that?

MCDOUGALL: That is something that we have been exploring for months and are continuing to explore. When you’re talking about the internet

COOPER: What does that mean continuing to explore that? You guys have been in business for a very long period of time. There are been plenty of people who wanted you to do this before. This is not the first time you considered this idea. So why not just say we’re going to do this.
I know it costs you money, but if that is the right thing to do.

MCDOUGALL: Money is not the issue. The issue is how do you functionally implement this? There are already technologies where you can verify the age of the poster, but that’s not helpful to verifying the age of the person in the image. There is no technology to do that currently –

COOPER: Unless the person comes directly in.

MCDOUGALL: Which –

COOPER: And you have to show an ID.

MCDOUGALL: If you have any knowledge and understanding of how the internet works is a practical impossibility in the internet realm.
What we are exploring is ways to make it a possibility.

COOPER: You have –

MCDOUGALL: When we do we will set that standard not just for us but for the entire online service provider community.

COOPER: Do you know when you will be able to decide whether or not you can actually do that?

MCDOUGALL: It’s not a matter of decision. It’s a matter of exploring and programming and collaboration with other online service providers, other technology providers, with law enforcement. There are some experts who have looked at how to better identify whether an image is somebody who is underage or not.

COOPER: But whether you are talking about internet verification you could just say anybody photographed in an ad has to come to your office in whatever city it is. You have these set up by cities and states and just show an ID why would that not –

MCDOUGALL: That’s where you have a complete misunderstanding of the functioning of the internet.

COOPER: I’m not talking about the internet I’m talking about physical location –

MCDOUGALL: Exactly.

COOPER: This is — you say this isn’t about money, but it seems like this is only about money.

MCDOUGALL: No. There — in no way is this only about money. This is about the functionality. Setting up an office in every place that we have — that we have a site you would be asking Craigslist to do the same thing.

COOPER: Craigslist stopped the service and you benefitted from that.

MCDOUGALL: We certainly achieved some of the — obtained some of the ad advertising from that, but to claim that Craigslist is out of this business is grossly ignorant. And that’s one of the ridiculous fallacies that has been perpetuated with saying taking down the adult category is going to cure human trafficking online?

COOPER: I’m not saying this will eliminate human trafficking. It seems to me the only reason you are in this business is to make money. And you’re making an awful lot of money. It’s helping the parent company, which is having losses in other areas of the business.

This is a hugely profitable area of business. So you are coming up with all these reasons to explain why you are doing this, but the bottom line is you are in the business to make money and this is a way to make money.

MCDOUGALL: That is your articulation of the bottom line. I joined Backpage a couple of months ago with more than a decade of fighting cybercrime and in anti-trafficking.

This — this political campaign to shut down an adult category so we can say, look we did something effective here is — it’s a ridiculous ineffective approach and taking attention from the serious issues here.

The social conditions that create the vulnerabilities of the people who are trafficked and the demand issue. Let’s face the issue there is demand that drives this. I came here to stop this problem. I don’t make money from this.

COOPER: Your salary is paid by this.

MCDOUGALL: My salary is paid, but it has nothing to do with how much money the company makes.

COOPER: It does. This is how your company makes money. This is a big money — according to this group, Aim. I don’t know if their figures are accurate.

MCDOUGALL: That’s true, but does that mean that every business that is out there because they are making money is doing it for some level and purpose?

COOPER: No, but if it is illegal activity and you are giving them ad space or you’re allowing them to advertise and you’re making money off that it seems harder to take a really firm stand. And say we are not in the prostitution business we want to be the sheriffs of the internet when all of these states attorneys general are saying please stop this.

MCDOUGALL: We are in the classified ad business. As I’ve explained, the adult category is less than 15 percent of our business. The attorneys general are pounding their chest on this issue, but 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 and talk to Dr. Mark Latinero who is now heading research on human trafficking and technology.

And there are multitude of academics out there who are saying as well as the vice cops on the ground, this is not the answer.

COOPER: Appreciate your perspective and you coming in to talk about it. Thank you very much.

MCDOUGALL: Thank you for listening.

COOPER: We’ll be right back.

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