Village Voice Needs a Reality Check
Last week, the general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings, the company that owns the online classifieds site, Backpage.com, wrote an op-ed to The Seattle Times entitled “Backpage.com is an ally in the fight against human trafficking.” Not only is this statement a misleading and offensive characterization of Backpage’s position, it is also staunchly refuted by law enforcement nationwide. Indeed, Rob McKenna, head of the National Association of Attorneys General, who has worked extensively on human trafficking, has gone so far as to state: “The idea that Backpage is somehow an ally of law enforcement is complete nonsense. They’re actually allies of the pimps, of the traffickers. They’re making it easy for men who exploit girls and women to get away with it.”
But McDougall does not simply stop there. Her piece goes on to weave a web of misleading positions and canned excuses for her employer’s despicable business model. First, she implies that she was somehow randomly selected to serve as general counsel for Backpage, a decision she had to weigh in accordance with her principles. Whereas in fact, it is perfectly clear why Backpage turned to her – she was previously part of the legal team that defended Craigslist when it was similarly mired in child sex trafficking scandals. The only difference is that Craigslist eventually shut down its adult services section in the face of overwhelming evidence that its site facilitated child sex trafficking. Backpage patently refuses to do so. It refuses to do so despite wholly admitting children are trafficked on its site nationwide. And it’s no surprise why.
In the last 12 months alone, Backpage has generated $26 million in revenue from online prostitution advertising. In fact, Backpage makes up 80 percent of all online prostitution ad revenue. Therefore, when McDougall and others argue that no good will come of shutting down Backpage’s adult services section, they are quite simply wrong. Of course no one denies that traffickers and buyers may shift their focuses elsewhere, but it will undoubtedly make an enormous impact to take down the forum with the overwhelming majority of all sex ads. In fact, after Craigslist shut down its adult services section, a study revealed that the site’s ban sparked a 48 percent drop in the overall volume of prostitution ads online. The fewer sites out there where children are subject to exploitation, the fewer children get victimized.
McDougall goes on to argue that another reason why their sex ads should remain online is that they can assist law enforcement by providing the forensic trail of those who buy and sell girls online. Sounds great in theory. However, as we have come to learn from law enforcement who investigate trafficking related crimes, both traffickers and buyers have long caught on to such tactics and have accordingly resorted to using temporary credit cards such as Visa, AMEX, and other gift cards in these types of transactions precisely to avoid any type of detection. Moreover, is Ms. McDougall really arguing that we should allow continued sexual exploitation of children and trafficking to occur in hopes of apprehending a few culprits along the way? Faulty logic to say the least.
Lawmakers, advocates, and law enforcement across the country have made it clear that they do not view Backpage as an ally in the fight against human trafficking, but as very much the proponent of it. These figures have publicly pleaded with Backpage to shut down its adult services section. For instance, 51 Attorneys General from over 48 states have written letters demanding that Backpage shut down its adult services section due to its facilitation of child sex trafficking. And just this week the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter from Mayors in 50 cities criticizing the “inadequate safeguards” on the website that lead to the continued exploitation of children. Lawmakers have also joined the chorus of those criticizing the site for its role in child exploitation along with 27 former Village Voice advertisers that have recently pulled ads due to the company’s involvement in child sex trafficking. And all the while, Backpage sits back, enjoys profits, and makes excuses.
The simple fact of the matter is that Backpage reaps financial rewards by providing an online forum for the exploitation of children. They continue to make excuses despite almost daily evidence that women and particularly, children are being advertised and sold for sex through their site—and sometimes even killed after being advertised on their site. Backpage has a moral obligation to cease its role in child exploitation. As a high profile company, their persistence in maintaining these ads is normalizing a practice that results in the widespread victimization of girls. As Attorney General McKenna has put it, “we can’t allow this open casbah—this market place to exist in such a high profile fashion because it encourages others to do even more of it.” And as Congressmen Maloney and Nadler have stated, “when a company like the Village Voice is engaged in selling children or trafficking victims for sex, it legitimizes the industry.”
I understand that Ms. McDougall has to defend the company she works for and represents, but that is precisely why she is not being objective. Calling the very company that profits from sex trafficking an ally of sex trafficking is not only false but offensive to victims nationwide and those who fight on their behalf. Backpage has effectively made it as easy to order a child online for sex as it is to order a food delivery. Even more disturbing is the fact that by indulging excuses and doing nothing to stop such practices, we make it possible for companies such as Village Voice Media Holdings and others, to gain enormous profits at the expense of our nation’s most vulnerable youth.