There was a refreshing show of inter-religious harmony—not to mention ironically old-fashioned faith in the power of print—in the edition of The New York Times that arrived on subscribers’ doorsteps Tuesday. In an open letter to alt-weekly conglomerate Village Voice Media, 36 members of clergy—“moral and religious leaders of many creeds and backgrounds”—demanded that the company shut down the Adult section of its classified listings, Backpage.com, on the ground that it is “a platform for the trafficking of minors.” The letter cited 14 states in which adults have been arrested for selling minors for sex via that website.
Within a matter of hours, the target of the attack shot back, accusing the group of refusing to meet—even refusing their offer to fly disparate signers to New York for a candid conversation. “Neither government officials nor God’s advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or speech,” read their response, which was eventually published across their media holdings. “Backpage has spent millions of dollars and dedicated countless resources to protecting children from those who would misuse an adult site … If someone is caught shipping contraband through the Post Office, we do not shut down the U.S. mail.”
It’s an appealing metaphor, but one that many—advocates, law-enforcement officials, and attorneys general alike—dispute. In August, 46 Attorneys General—later joined by five more—sent a similar letter, asking the Voice to demonstrate how, exactly, it was working to prevent children from being bought and sold on its online marketplace, given that there were still so many apparently underage girls among the advertisements for escort services that make up the site’s bread and butter. Just as Village Voice Media was drafting its response to that letter, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that his police department was in the midst of rescuing three young girls who had been sold via Backpager. And a year ago, a 15 year old girl sued the site for allowing her to be sold by her pimp for just $100 per encounter.
Village Voice Media, which didn’t respond to a request for comment has, to be fair, responded to increased scrutiny by implementing a handful of measures to try to curb the sale of under-aged girls. “They are making a serious effort to screen and monitor all the ads on their site and report all those that are suspicious,” says Ernie Allen, the President and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In the year his agency has worked with the company, some 2,000 suspicious ads have been flagged and sent to investigators. “The question is will it work, will it solve the problem,” Allen continues. “That’s something I can’t answer.”
Current efforts to compel Backpage to shut down come a year after Craigslist.com succumbed to the same sort of public pressure and shuttered its “Adult Services” pages. That move turned out to be a victory for not just for anti-trafficking activists, and a boon for Backpage itself. In the month following the site’s closure, Backpage saw its traffic surge by half a million hits, and became the web’s single biggest escort-advertiser. Ads for escorts and “body-rubs” currently provide more than $2 million a month for Village Voice Media, according to an industry analyst’s admittedly-conservative estimate.
For an embattled company attempting to stay afloat in an increasingly difficult media environment, these are not insignificant numbers. Which is why this fight will likely prove to be much more difficult than the one waged against Craigslist. “For Craigslist, this was an issue of conscience,” says Malika Saada Saar, whose organization, The Rebecca Project, is credited with that shutdown. But for the Village Voice, the Backpage listings are “almost their sole opportunity for economic viability. It is their business model … I think they will aggressively, belligerently, selfishly hold onto this.”
Village Voice publications certainly have spent a lot of energy attempting to dismantle the notion that sex trafficking on America’s shores is a legitimate concern. Last winter, its Dallas paper called the concern that the Super Bowl would attract 100,000 prostitutes—nearly 40 percent of them underage trafficking victims—a blend of “religious revival and political scam”. In New York, the Village Voice recently spent more than 4,000 words poking holes in widely-accepted statistics regarding the number of American children victimized by the sex industry. A week later, it attacked the journalistic credibility of CNN’s Amber Lyon, the reporter and co-producer of a documentary on sex trafficking called “Selling the Girls Next Door” that had attacked Backstage.
“Seven years ago, the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com, a competitor to Craigslist,” the Voice’s Tony Ortega, who authored a number of stories criticizing concerns over sex trafficking on American shores as nothing more than “mass paranoia,” wrote in July. “What happens when two adults find each other through Backpage.com? I couldn’t tell you … [It] exists solely so that people can freely express themselves—sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable. We’re First Amendment extremists that way. Always have been.”
The Backstage fight will likely prove to be much more difficult than the one waged against Craigslist.
But critics—Saada Saar among them—say that flying the flag of free speech is nothing more than a hollow, if savvy, defense tactic. “If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage, the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the first amendment,” she says—noting that there’s an exemption for advertising for drugs in the Communications Decency Act, but whereas there’s no such exemption for escort services, even when it amounts to little more than thinly veiled prostitution. “ It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free speech issue and it’s not. It’s a human rights issue.”
Allen notes that Craigslist, which his organization also worked with, implemented similar initiatives to those taken by Backstage, only to see them fail. “They screened, monitored, and reported. Ultimately they concluded that it was not eliminating the problem so they shut down their ads.” As for whether he expects Backpage to fold as well, “I can’t take a position,” he says. “We have a role here to play in terms of receiving and handling these reports and working with law enforcement. I can’t compromise it.”
The 36 members of clergy who penned the letter, meanwhile, remain optimistic that their efforts—not to mention their investment—will pay off. ”I’m speaking as a clergyperson and also as a mother,” says Reverend Katherine Henderson, who spearheaded the initiative. “I’m concerned for our children and I believe that the American people, when they become aware of this, will feel as outraged as I do … Every minute that we delay, there’s an opportunity for more children to be bought and sold.”
And as for their response to the accusation that they ignored the Voice’s offer to fly members of the coalition to New York for a meeting, effectively blowing their chance at an agreement? “We certainly aren’t going to take money from Village Voice Media when they are making that money from this Backpage site,” Henderson says. “But our doors are still open.”