Back Page and Sex Work
By Red Bradshaw
Recently it made headline news when CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, and founders of Backpage, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, were arrested for allegedly pimping and intent for pimping. What is interesting is all the information that came to light after their arrest and bail hearing.
A number of other sites similar to Backpage have also been shut down - MyRedbook, Rentboy, and My Review Board. Perhaps the government has a bigger problem than actual prostitution but that they can't tax these incomes? This question has been a long standing argument that some governments have been able to utilize and make prostitution legal, organized and taxable. North American governments seem hesitant to take steps in following and in fact seem intent on persecuting the oldest profession without consideration as to how their actions affect sex workers and their clients.
The charges against Ferrer allege that he was trafficking in pimping out minors. At the same time there were reports filed with the court documents stating he and his partners reported to agencies if they found an ad with a minor especially to NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) and also took the ad down right away even if it was just questionable. Also paperwork filed by the California Department of Justice Special Agent Brian Fichtner stated that Backpage has cooperated with law-enforcement and the NCMEC in sex trafficking investigations which does not really sound like an "acknowledgment" of wrongdoing from Backpage at all, quiet the opposite. So, for future review how is it a bad thing that NCMEC can monitor Backpage for potential exploitation? That's certainly something it couldn't do if prostitution ads were further dispersed all over the Internet or these teens were selling sex from bars and street corners. In the minority of cases where NCMEC turns out to be correct about minors engaging in prostitution, it's Backpage that provides a paper trail allowing law enforcement to track them down, along with any potential predators.
Being realistic, teens are selling themselves, some have pimps, some do it through other means on the internet, chats, pick up services, gaming sites. Yes, there are those who are forced into it and as a community we need to do everything in our power to help that minority but isn't it a possibility to monitor it through a website and stop crime this way? There are those who claim to be "barely legal" and fly under the radar because they are 15-17 and do look like 19 or older. What can any advertising company do to prevent ads like those? Ask for legal documents from them?
Given the sex work advertising trends, such as Craigslist and Now Magazine, we can all see that give the people a place to advertise and much of it will be for adult services. Just look at your daily newspapers and you will find adequate number of them hidden yet in the open. The government tries and tries to take these down but in essence it is unmanageable because sex work just is not going to go away, and some may argue with social media and more means to advertise it will only become more and more mainstream and socially acceptable. Wouldn't sites like Backpage be better to operate openly but with some organization and backchecks? Imagine the long term benefits of being able to monitor the advertisements in one place. It is a win for the industry, and for the safety and rescue of those who are being trafficked.
Backpage runs hundreds of thousands of user-generated ads every day. It does not and can't possibly and does not claim to look at all of them before they go up. It relies on an automated screening processes that flags potentially suspicious ads, these flagged ads are then reviewed by actual humans. Trying to prevent people from offering illegal services through such screening processes is all Backpage can realistically do, but it is clear that they have done a decent job of it based on the reporting to authorities they have done and how many cases of trafficking they have directly helped in ending. This should be enough to protect Backpage or any other similar site from criminal liability under federal law. Like other user-generated content and social media sites (Craigslist, Reddit, Facebook) Backpage is theoretically shielded from liability for things users post by Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. So, I ask again, why the does the government insist on trying to stop BackPage instead of working with them?
Places like Backpage give freedom for sex workers to be without a pimp and strike out on their own. I honestly can't say how much safer this is, for sex workers to be able to effecitively manage their own businesses and advertising is a key attraction to them being able to work independently, away from "managers" or pimps.
When are North American governments going to see the benefits of sites like Backpage and use it to their advantage in the war against trafficking and trafficking of minors instead of prosecuting sex workers and putting them more at risk?
In early December we heard that the cases of pimping were dropped but in follow ups, the original Judge has since reissued the charges and has added money laundering to them. The case of the government against BackPage is far from over and we are all waiting to see what happens next because the impact on the sex industry in all of North America will be affected by it.
In light of events, BP has asked that people donate to Children of the Night, an organization dedicated to rescuing minors from prostitution