Village Voice Media has been under increasing fire in recent weeks as the City Council and the U.S. Senate moved forward with resolutions to push the company — best known for its flagship New York publication under the same name — to shut down the sex section of its Backpage.com website due to the presence of illegal trafficking among the site’s users. And, earlier today, two Manhattan Reps., Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, joined the company’s critics by writing a letter to Village Voice Media CEO Jim Larkin calling for the cessation of sex ads.
“We are deeply troubled by information from members of law enforcement that Backpage.com … is frequently being used to advertise the sexual exploitation of minors and trafficked persons,” they wrote in their letter. “Backpage.com can create a significant impact on trafficking by shutting off a major source of advertising for these criminals – the adult services section of its website.”
Village Voice Media has defended the ads by arguing the company’s control makes it easier for sex traffickers to be caught by law enforcement, but Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney did not find this position to be especially convincing:
“Backpage.com has argued that if it were to shut down its adult services section, the business would simply transfer to other, darker places on the Internet. While that may be true, it is also true that if the business transferred to a less prominent location, it might be harder for the casual user to find and, therefore, might make this business less lucrative. Furthermore, when a company like the Village Voice is engaged in selling children or trafficking victims for sex, it legitimizes the industry. Given the magnitude of the business done by Backpage.com involving trafficked persons, it is hard to believe that your controls are as comprehensive as you claim.”
The criticism leveled against the site mirrors that faced by Craigslist’s “adult services” section, which they eventually shut down after years of vilification. Because the ads are a rather lucrative product, this sort of public relations position is a tough one for a company to be in.
View the full letter below:
Dear Mr. Larkin:
We are deeply troubled by information from members of law enforcement that Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC (“Village Voice”), is frequently being used to advertise the sexual exploitation of minors and trafficked persons. Backpage.com can create a significant impact on trafficking by shutting off a major source of advertising for these criminals – the adult services section of its website.
As you may know, estimates as to the number of children being sexually exploited in the United States vary widely; however, most estimates place the number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Many of these young people are runaways, who were in foster care or from abusive homes. According to the Department of Justice, the estimated average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 for girls, 11-13 for boys. Trafficking in children is illegal under federal law, and state law, and federal law makes clear that people who benefit from this trade cannot pretend to turn a blind eye. In 2008, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act amended Title 18, Section 1591 of the United States Code to make it clear that a person can be found guilty for acting with “reckless disregard” of the fact that a child will be used for commercial sexual purposes. Courts have found that ignorance is deliberate if the defendants were presented with facts putting them on notice that criminal activity was particularly likely and yet intentionally failed to investigate. Over and over again, law enforcement has found a link between the sexual exploitation of minors or trafficking victims and Backpage.com.
The National Association of Attorneys General reports that its members have tracked more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years, of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com. In our area, on March 8, 2012, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced that he was prosecuting defendants in a case involving a 15-year-old Long Island girl who was kidnapped and taken to Queens where she was drugged and gang-raped by thugs who reportedly sold her on Backpage.com. Similarly, on March 13, 2012, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the indictment of a man who was forcing a woman to work for him as a prostitute by physical violence, threats and psychological manipulation, and withholding her permanent resident card and birth certificate. The press release announcing the indictment specifically says the defendant “advertised multiple females for prostitution using online advertising on websites such as Backpage.com in order to locate potential clients.”
On April 25, 2012, the New York City Council conducted a hearing on the connection between Backpage.com and sex trafficking. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes testified that, among the 40 cases his sex-trafficking unit has prosecuted in the past two years, “one website, above all, [was] most frequently used to exploit children and advertise trafficked victims-that website is Backpage.com.” Similarly, Daniel Alonso, Chief Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, testified that “ads placed on Backpage.com have played a part in nearly every other sex trafficking investigation and case seen by my office.” He went on to say that “Backpage.com and web sites like it in effect serve to enable trafficking by providing a place for traffickers – who are, after all, criminals – to drum up demand for what they view as a product.”
We are strong supporters of the First Amendment, but its free speech protections do not extend to the facilitation of criminal activity, such as the sexual exploitation of minors on the Internet. We are aware that Backpage.com argues that it cooperates with law enforcement and that its efforts have led to successful prosecutions of some traffickers; we also know, however, that countless other criminals have posted advertisements of minors and trafficked women without being brought to the attention of law enforcement.
If Backpage.com’s procedures were sufficient to interdict the majority of cases in which minors are trafficked, then we would be more inclined to accept your protestations that Backpage.com serves a valuable function in assisting law enforcement in protecting minors. In fact, the 51 Attorneys General who have expressed their concern about Backpage.com argue that Backpage.com is “a hub for such activity,” ie., for the sexual exploitation of children and prostitution.
Backpage.com has argued that if it were to shut down its adult services section, the business would simply transfer to other, darker places on the Internet. While that may be true, it is also true that if the business transferred to a less prominent location, it might be harder for the casual user to find and, therefore, might make this business less lucrative. Furthermore, when a company like the Village Voice is engaged in selling children or trafficking victims for sex, it legitimizes the industry. Given the magnitude of the business done by Backpage.com involving trafficked persons, it is hard to believe that your controls are as comprehensive as you claim.
We join the 19 United States Senators, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, 51 Attorneys General, dozens of human rights and sexual assault organizations, faith leaders, elected officials and more than a quarter of a million Americans who contacted you or signed a petition on this issue, urging you to remove the adult services section from Backpage.com. Too many children and too many trafficking victims have been sold on your website for us to accept any more excuses.
We await your prompt response.
Very truly yours,
CAROLYN B. MALONEY
Member of Congress
JERROLD L. NADLER
Member of Congress