This afternoon, the Women’s Issues Committee of the City Council held a hearing on a resolution proposed by Council members Brad Lander and Melissa Mark-Viverito that would call for Village Voice Media to shut down the “adult” section of its classified ad site Backpage.com. Village Voice Media, which publishes 13 alt-weeklies around the country including its the flagship Village Voice in New York, has faced mounting pressure over Backpage, which opponents claim encourages human trafficking. At today’s hearing, the company’s general counsel, Liz McDougall, spoke on behalf of Backpage and emotions ran high with tears, laughter and shouting all on display.
Prior to Ms. McDougall’s testimony, a 16-year-old former victim of sex trafficking spoke about her experience with BackPage. To safeguard her identity, she was identified only as “Brianna” and gave her testimony from behind a white screen. “Brianna” said she got caught up in the sex trade at the age of 9 after she ran away from home and sought refuge with a friend’s older brother.
“I found out he was a pimp and I tried to leave, but he didn’t allow me,” she said. “Although I’ve been exploited in several ways, 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. … It was very painful for me because the dates I’ve gotten on Backpage have been the most violent. I just feel like this is something that needs to be taken down.”
“Brianna” was several Backpage opponents who spoke at the hearing prior to Ms. McDougall and described how law enforcement agencies and youth organizations are seeing a growing number of trafficking cases that involve the site. When it was her turn to speak, Ms. McDougall, a cybercrime specialist with a background in fighting trafficking who joined the company in late February as the uproar over Backpage reached a fever pitch, acknowledged trafficking is a “social atrocity,” but said the question surrounding Backpage are a “grossly complex issue.” Ms. McDougall argued it’s better to have ads for sex work appear on a site run by a company like Village Voice Media that is willing to work with law enforcement when requested rather than potentially moving to more shadowy corners of the internet.
“The reason that we take the position that taking the adult category on backpage is not an effective countermeasure to human trafficking is because … the content and the advertising will migrate somewhere else,” Ms. McDougall explained. “What terrifies me, is the notion that what is going to happen is that this content, this advertising is going to go to what is known as the ‘black hat’ web sites, the underground websites and, ultimately, the offshore websites.”
Ms. McDougall highlighted her company’s efforts to police the content on Backpage including sending about 2,600 reports of potential child exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hiring 100 staffers to monitor content on the site, cooperating with police investigations, imposing an age limit of 21 for site users and having multiple warning pages reiterating the age limit and illegality of prostitution. By charging for the site, Ms. McDougall said Village Voice Media was able to obtain information that could create a “financial trail” in cases where investigators were looking for a trafficker or one of their victims.
“We’re working to establish best practices. We already are the industry leaders in doing that, both through our three-tiered moderation, including automatic filtering two levels of manual review, and the additional research that we do voluntarily for law enforcement to make sure that they have the most solid case possible to convict the traffickers,” Ms. McDougall said.
Ms. McDougall didn’t seem to sway the Council members, who aggressively criticized and questioned her following her testimony.
“You said you know that there is key parts to this problem and I think what you’re missing is, you are a key part of the problem,” Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, chair of the Women’s Issues Committee said.
“I don’t deny that Backpage is part of the problem, but the problem is the internet,” Ms. McDougall said. “We are being abused by these criminals and we dont want to be abused by these criminals.”
“I don’t understand how you can be a victim when you’re profiting,” Ms. Ferreras responded. “I want to know what’s the revenue that the Village Voice gets from their advertisements.”
Ms. McDougall declined to reveal the revenues from the adult section of Backpage citing Village Voice Media’s status as a private company. She also said she could not reveal the number of adult ads on the site each month and precisely how much that figure has grown in recent years.
“I’d like to have a dialogue with you, not a confrontation and not an argument,” Ms. McDougall said to Ms. Ferreras, who was getting increasingly heated. “I don’t appreciate being shouted at when I’m trying to have a conversation.”
“I’m coming across a little loud, so lower my mic because I don’t mean to shout,” Ms. Ferreras said.
Things became even more contentious when Mr. Lander, who co-sponsored the resolution, got his chance to question Ms. McDougall. He asked her why, if Village Voice Media is proactive about rooting out trafficking on Backpage, the company has not made “one referral” to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Ms. McDougall began to answer, but Mr. Lander cut her off and accused her of avoiding his question.
“Are we here to have a sarcastic back and forth or would you like to exchange useful info?” she asked.
“Well, so far you haven’t given us any information on the volume of what’s happening on Backpage.com, you haven’t given us any information on your profits,” Mr. Lander said. “The way a hearing works is that we ask tough questions.”
Mr. Lander then asked Ms. McDougall how her company could profess to be cooperating with law enforcement when they didn’t heed a request from over 40 prosecutors in the National Association of Attorneys General to shut the adult section of Backpage.
“The only people that have asked us to stop taking the ads that you’re deeming law enforcement were the Attorneys General,” Ms. McDougall said. “The attorneys general, for all of their great wisdom, are not experts in cybercrime and they have had very political agendas in their demands.”
Ms. McDougall’s reply led to another contentious back-and-forth with Mr. Lander. She eventually attempted to stop taking his questions.
“I’m not going to answer questions if you just continue to interrupt me,” Ms. McDougall said.
“I’m sorry, this is a City Council hearing and the Council member is asking questions,” Ms. Ferreras replied. “I’m going to ask you to also be respectful of the Council member, he has not finished his questions, if you choose not to answer that question, you could say that for the testimony.”
“I would appreciate if you would admonish him to stop interrupting me then,” Ms. McDougall said.
“We don’t admonish here, we are colleagues here,” Ms. Ferreras responded incredulously. “He’s going to ask every question that he needs to ask.”
Mr. Lander’s next question drew big laughs from the audience.
“Are you thinking about setting up a drug dealing section of the Backpage.com website? … How about a gun trading or weapons trading section?” he asked. “By your logic, wouldn’t they be extremely helpful in prosecuting drug dealing and weapons trading?”
Ms. McDougall said she wouldn’t respond to “sarcasm or rhetorical questions like this.”
“I’m here to talk about human trafficking online and I’ve explained to you how we can be a valuable tool for that,” she said.
Mr. Lander concluded his questioning by saying he believes the increase in volume of trafficking cause by sites like Backpage negates any efforts the sites make to aid prosecutions.
“I do appreciate your being here,” he said to Ms. McDougall. “You have made clear that, in your opinion, the issue is grossly complex. To me, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s just gross.”
There were at least two other people at the hearing who were on Ms. McDougall’s side. Representatives from the Sex Workers Outreach Project testified eliminating Backpage would simply increase the amounts of “marginalization” and “criminalization” sex workers currently face.
Though the Council members clearly seem predisposed to passing the resolution, it won’t have much effect on Village Voice Media. Unlike bills, Council resolutions carry no legal weight and this would merely be an expression of support for shutting the site down.