Washington State Attorney General on Backpage Law

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By: Anderson Cooper, CNN

COOPER: Another "Keeping Them Honest" report tonight. There are new battle lines being drawn in court over backpage.com, which is a leading site on adult services ads. Now those ads that people run brought in $27 million for the web site last year according to the internet research first, Aim Group.

For months now we have been reporting on the push to shut down the ads where officials in various states say that underage girls are sold for sex. The numbers are really staggering.

There had been at least 50 cases in 22 states of people charged with trafficking underaged girls for sex on backpage.com. Plus the country's 51 attorneys general, 19 U.S. senators, 600 religious leaders, more than 50 NGOs in a petition with 230,000 signatures are calling on Village Media Holdings, which own backpage to shut down the ads immediately.

The web site, though, they are not backing down. Backpage's attorney, Liz McDougall insists they do nothing wrong. Look at what happened when CNN's Deborah Feyerick was confronted Ms. McDougall in a recent report that aired on 360.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How would you feel, for example, I mean, as a mother, if you saw an ad like this or an ad like this? This girl she says she's 19, if you saw your daughter in this -- like this?

LIZ MCDOUGALL, GENERAL COUNSEL, VILLAGE VOICE MEDIA HOLDINGS: 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: Am I wrong? Isn't prostitution simply illegal?

MCDOUGALL: Prostitution is illegal and we do not permit illegal activity on the web site.

FEYERICK: What are they settling?

MCDOUGALL: There are legal adult entertainment services.


COOPER: I mean, if you look at backpage.com you know what is being sold on that site. The attorney for backpage.com, Liz McDougall is talking about shutting down the adult services section. She says does not answer.

In fact, she claims that Backpage actually helps in the fight against child prostitution because it keeps sex traffickers in one place making it easier for law enforcement to find them.

Now in an interview that I did with her, McDougall said to me that one of the biggest allies is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She says they work together.

But "Keeping Them Honest," when we asked that organization if they supported Backpage, the answer was an emphatic no. Listen what the head of the group, Ernie Allen told me.


COOPER: They portray themselves as the sheriffs of the internet and that they are all about stopping illegal activity. Do you buy that?

ERNIE ALLEN, NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING AND EXPLOITED CHILDREN: I don't. What is happening is that the internet has become the primary resource, the information clearinghouse for purchase of children for sex and for illegal prostitution.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Well, the state of Washington agrees passed a law that sets to take effect today that would require Backpage to verify the ages of the people advertising in the adult services section.

But Backpage challenged the law and at the last minute, federal judges issued a 14-day temporary restraining order against its enforcement.

I spoke earlier today to Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna.


COOPER: Mr. Attorney General, the lawyer for backpage.com says that this law violates among other things the first amendment and that it's so broadly written adversely any web site that allows users to post their content could face criminal charges. Essentially that it would be a big blow to the internet as we know it. What is your response to that?

ROBERT MCKENNA, WASHINGTON STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL: This law is actually very narrowly tailored. It's designed to get at ads for adult services as they're called. We're talking about ads for prostitution.

It's designed to prevent children in being advertised online with the publisher's participation. So actually since most people don't publish ads for prostitution and certainly don't publish ads for prostitution involving minors this is not broad and will not affect most web sites.

COOPER: Backpage is that they claim they are part of the solution. They claim they are the sheriffs of the internet and that if they shut down their site that these people are going to gravitate to other sites that don't have any kind of sense of responsibility. What is your take to that?

MCKENNA: Well, of course, Backpage wants to continue making, you know, $20 million to $30 million a year for its owners, Village Voice Media.

COOPER: And that's is what this is about for you?

MCKENNA: It's about --

COOPER: It's money?

MCKENNA: For them that's clearly motivating them because other websites like Craigslist have moved ahead already to take down their adult services section to put into effect policy policies against ads for escort services and prostitution. They police their web site now.

When they find ads, they take them down. Google does the same thing and so do other responsible internet web sites. They look for the ads. Some of them may slip through, but as soon as they are spotted they are taken down. Backpage is openly soliciting ads from pimps and prostitutes and encouraging them to place their ads with them.

COOPER: I mean, they claim that, you know, they do all sorts of enforcement. They say they have lots of letters from local law enforcement agencies who praise them for being proactive and being reactive.

MCKENNA: Well, as your own investigation revealed recently, law enforcement does not support Backpage as an ally. They don't view Backpage as part of the solution. They are actually to create the problem by facilitating these transactions. Your research corresponds to what I have found from talking to law enforcement from around the country.

COOPER: One of the things that I don't understand we asked the folks at Backpage about this, is that if they really wanted to check the age of the people involved who are advertising on their site, regardless of even whether or not they were, you know, having escort sites. But just to check the ages, they could set up a local office in the various cities that they operate in and have customers come in personally with an ID and verify the person posting the ad is actually an adult. I talked to the lawyer for backpage.com, Liz McDougall about that. I just want to play for you and for our viewers some of what she said.

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

COOPER: What does that mean? You have been in business for a long period of time and there's been plenty of people wanted you to do this before. This is not the first time you have considered this idea. So why not just say we are going to do this. I know it's going to cost you money, but if that's the right thing to do.

MCDOUGALL: Money is not the issue. The issue is how do you functionally implement this. If you have any knowledge and understanding of how the internet works it's a practical impossibility in the internet realm.

COOPER: Now I'm clearly not an internet expert, but I'm not an idiot. I mean, you can open up a local office. Clearly to me, it seems to be this is an issue of money.

MCKENNA: Well, for that matter they don't have to open an office. They can contract that work out just like some web sites contract out other verification procedures to outside parties who monitor the site for them. So they can use local agents to represent them who are reputable who can take the ID from someone who wants to place the ad. By the way, we know from interviewing these young girls who are being trafficked that many times they are forced by the traffickers to place the ads themselves. And they have been having the girls use gift cards like, like a Visa gift card, for example, in order to get around identification requirements. So you have to have an in person verification system to prevent bad guys from working around your rules. But, of course, Backpage doesn't really have such rules now.

 COOPER: Attorney General McKenna, I appreciate you being on the show. Thank you.

 MCKENNA: Thank you.

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