A. G. Pruitt joins nationwide group of Attorneys General in Inquiry into Trafficking Practices by Backpage.com
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Published: 31-Aug-2011

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt on Tuesday (August 31) joined attorneys general from 44 states and Guam to question the practices of Backpage.com, a company that state law enforcement agencies contend does not do enough to stop human trafficking and exploitation.

In a letter to the online classified site, the attorneys general questioned the claims of Backpage.com executives that the site has strict policies to prevent illegal activity. According to chief legal officers in several states, hundreds of ads have been found on Backpage.com’s regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.

“It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general wrote.

In the letter, the attorneys general expressed concern that the website is a hub for illegal sex ads and a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors, pointing to more than 50 cases in 22 states over three years that involve trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through Backpage.com.

“These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist,” the attorneys general wrote. In 2010, nearly two dozen attorneys general requested the adult services site be taken down.

“Traffickers who exploit runaways and other disadvantaged kids shouldn’t be provided with a tool that makes that process easier,” Pruitt said. “The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to take down adult services advertisements altogether, and take aggressive steps to be sure such posts don’t appear elsewhere on the site.”

Pruitt added that kids aren’t capable, legally or otherwise, to consent to be sold for sex. And regardless of a prostitute’s age, it’s difficult to know whether the person in the advertisement is being coerced.

In many cases involving human trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement finds that minors are often coerced into the illegal trade. Prosecutors in Benton County, Washington, are handling a case in which teenage girls say they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on Backpage.com. Backpage.com charges $1 and up for such ads.

Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is the top provider of “adult services” advertisements. The multimedia company owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States, including The Observer in Dallas. 

Industry analysts suggest that Village Voice’s stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.

Many state attorneys general believe that Backpage.com is attempting to minimize the impact of child sex trafficking because they fear it will turn attention to the company’s robust prostitution advertising business. While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in today’s letter believe that “Backpage.com sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.”

The letter from the state attorneys general asks that Backpage.com willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena. The information includes a detailed description of the company’s understanding of what constitutes “illegal activity,” whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category, how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since Sept. 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services.

In 2008, 42 attorneys general reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like human trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its “erotic services” section altogether in May 2009.

A copy of the letter from the attorneys general can be viewed here 

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