AG Going Back After Backpage.com

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, Aug. 31, 2011:

Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper and 45 other attorneys general are urging Backpage.com to do more to stop online classified ads promoting human sex trafficking, particularly those that could involve minors.

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

The letter stated the hub for illegal sex ads is a magnet for those seeking to exploit minors and points to more than 50 cases, in 22 states over three years, involving the 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. They also reminded Backpage.com of a 2010 request from nearly two dozen attorneys general asking that the adult services site be taken down.

Tennessee has had numerous instances of suspected human sex trafficking with arrests from one end of the state to the other in the past few years. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation noted in a joint study with Vanderbilt’s Center for Community Studies mandated by the General Assembly that, “Human trafficking and sex slavery in Tennessee is more common than previously believed possible.” The May 2011 study observed that Tennessee is especially attractive to traffickers because of its geographic location and proximity to major Interstates and larger cities.

“We look forward to continuing to collaborate with attorneys general across the country as well as with the TBI and local law enforcement to raise awareness and fight this menace,” Tennessee Attorney General Cooper said. General Cooper has supported previous efforts to stop human trafficking by teaming with others last year to pressure Craigslist and Backpage.com to take down their adult services sections that advertised sex for sale by adults and minors.

“The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site,” the attorneys general said in their letter, “is to take down adult services advertisements altogether and take aggressive steps to be sure such posts don’t appear elsewhere on the site.”

This year, the Tennessee General Assembly strengthened laws against human trafficking making Tennessee one of six states with a law that provides immunity from prosecution of minors for prostitution. “The law recognizes that children are not capable, legally or otherwise, to consent in these cases,” General Cooper said, “and that they are the real victims of these crimes.”

Other new statutory provisions enhance the penalties for patronizing prostitution and promoting prostitution of minors or persons who have an intellectual disability, provide that real and personal property used in commission of human trafficking offenses is subject to judicial forfeiture seizure, and require certain establishments to post a sign with information regarding the national human trafficking resource center hotline.

General Cooper pointed out that the National Association of Attorneys General 2011-12 presidential initiative is focused on efforts among his colleagues to combat human trafficking.

While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in today’s letter noted they 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 asks Backpage.com to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity. The attorneys general also ask the company to cooperate by describing in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes “illegal activity,” and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category. Additionally, they ask how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since September 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, how many were rejected, 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. Following continued allegations of rampant prostitution advertisements and growing public frustration, in August 2010, state attorneys general called upon Craigslist to remove its “adult services” section, which it promptly did. This is the second time the attorneys general have asked Backpage.com to follow the example of Craigslist by removing its “adult” section.

In Tennessee, anyone who has information regarding possible illegal abuses of the website should contact local law enforcement. Anyone who has information about a possible crime can also call the TBI Hotline at 1-800-TBI-FIND.