DETROIT, MI – Backpage.com is under fire and a target by lawmakers and law enforcers to force it to either be shut down or at the very least stop the practice of selling on line ads for escort services. Backpage.com is the top provider of “adult services” advertisements. It is estimated that their stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.
Advertisements for “escorts” can be found for nearly every major city in the United States and they all include girls and boys, some of whom are clearly juveniles who are selling sexual services. Backpage charges one dollar and up for adult services ads. Backpage.com, like that of Craigslist, has been asked to shut down its adult services section, which is clearly used to facilitate sex trafficking. In response, Backpage representatives stated they were and continue to be committed to preventing minors from being posted on their site, although little action has been or is being taken to actually support those claims.
Criminal activity linked to Backpage and Craigslist are nothing new to hear about. Just today in McHenry County, IL, Charles Oliver, who was accused of raping eight women he met on Craigslist and other dating sites, pleaded guilty to two more counts of sexual assault. Oliver met most of the women on Craigslist and agreed to pay them for sex. He now stands to receive a prison term of 20 to 93 years when he’s sentenced in May.
Darrell Delane Cash in 2011 was arrested by Marietta Georgia police for using both Craiglist and Backpage to commit multiple robberies and sexual assaults on women. Investigators said he would contact and arrange to meet females through the websites. Cash would then meet the victim at an unoccupied house or apartment, rob and sexually assault them at gunpoint.
This criminal element has hit close to home as well. In February 2014 a jury convicted James Brown of Sterling Heights in the killing of four women who went to his home after connecting through online escort ads on Backpage. Brown killed the women at his Sterling Heights home in December 2011. The bodies were then stuffed in car trunks and left miles away in a Detroit neighborhood. Two of the women were burned beyond recognition. Renisha Landers, Demesha Hunt, Natasha Curtis and Vernithea McCrary were all in their 20s when they were murdered by Brown.
Backpage.com has also been linked to a high-profile slaying in Chicago involving a longtime Brother Rice Catholic High School business teacher. In that case, prosecutors say Alan Filan was fatally stabbed by a prostitute he met through Backpage.
In September of 2010, after years of being vilified for allegedly fostering sexual abuse, Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section. Craigslist had been dubbed “the Wal-Mart of child sex trafficking.” Now it appears that Backpage picked up the slack where Craigslist left off. Legally, Craigslist and Backpage are protected by the First Amendment and are not responsible for ads posted by users.
Craigslist in the wake of being scrutinized heavily by lawmakers and law enforcement, the operators of the site worked with authorities before shutting down their adult service section. They were requiring phone verification for every adult service ad. They manually reviewed every adult service ad prior to posting them for public view. They created specialized victim search interfaces for law enforcement. They also enlisted users to patrol the site for human trafficking and put in place a means of channeling tips to child-exploitation organizations. As a result, the company says its adult-services section had become the world’s best venue for catching sex abusers. CEO Jim Buckmaster had warned that once Craigslist shut down their adult services section, another website would step in to pick up the slack and one that would not be so willing to cooperate with authorities. Backpage.com became that very site.
Website operators cannot currently be held liable for what people post on their sites because doing so would be a threat to free speech. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is working to get a new federal law enacted that would focus on the Internet sex trade, making it possible to criminally charge site operators who sell or promote ads that facilitate sex crimes, including prostitution and trafficking. The law aims to strike at the “centralized and nationalized” aspect of a website such as Backpage, which provides traffickers a way to ply their illicit trade by moving people around quickly and anonymously.
Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, owners of Backpage.com, have won several lawsuits against them and their website. Laws in Washington, New Jersey and Tennessee, where legislators enacted legislation to stop or curb illegal acts because of website’s like Backpage and Craigslist, only watched as those laws went down in flames in the courts for violating the First Amendment and the Federal Communications Decency Act.
Until laws can be enacted and not be struck down later, law enforcement should find a way to better partner with Backpage.com and websites like it. Placing the blame on websites for the illegal acts of those using the means of communication does nothing to strike at the core of the true problems. The mouse trap has been built already. Use it to find the pimps and human traffickers and bring them to justice for the thousands of victims that are waiting for their voices to be heard.