Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

By Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna

Do you believe that Backpage – the online marketplace for prostitution – is an ally in the fight against human trafficking? Imagine our surprise when we opened our copies of the Seattle Times to find Backpage attorney Liz McDougall [“Backpage.com is an ally in fight against human trafficking,” Opinion, May 7] making this jaw-dropping claim.

Backpage is many things, but an ally in the fight against trafficking it’s not.  It’s a cash machine churning out tens of millions a year for its owners by charging $1 and up for prostitution advertisements.  And it’s found frequently in police reports. As the Seattle Times reported on May 7, “Since 2010, Seattle police have recovered 24 juveniles advertised on Backpage.com, two of them in the past two months.”

The exploitation of minors on Backpage is what initially brought the site to our attention. Of the many people affected by Backpage-related crimes, we met a Washington state teen who, at 15-years-old, ran away from home, almost immediately became ensnared in prostitution and was posted on the sex site. She was horribly assaulted by one of her customers and beaten by the pimp who posted her online. It was shocking reminder that the sale of human beings through Backpage must stop.

Washington State is a national leader in trying to hold the online classified site accountable. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn blasted Backpage, pulling all city advertisements from the local Village Voice newspaper and gathering dozens of his fellow mayors to demand that the site verify the ages of those posted.  In August 2011, we rallied our colleagues – 45 state attorneys general (now a total of 48 state AGs and three territories) – in demanding that Backpage come clean about how it supposedly screens out minors. The company has yet to provide a detailed response, while arrests of those exploiting young people through the site continue.

Washington state’s Legislature this year passed a groundbreaking bill making it a crime to post minors for sale online, while providing an affirmative defense for those who can demonstrate they verified a person’s age before accepting the advertisement. One might assume that an ally in the fight against human trafficking would leap at the opportunity to show with certainty that a person is 18 before being posted in a sex ad. But no, Backpage attorney Liz McDougall indicated that she will challenge the law on behalf of her client.

The hypocrisy is rich: on the one hand, Backpage’s attorney touts her company’s efforts to help police after a young person has been victimized. As McDougall wrote in the Seattle Times, Backpage “[R]esponds to law-enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less in almost all cases.” But on the other hand, the company refuses to take precautions that would prevent the exploitation of minors. Backpage  executive Carl Ferrer wrote to Mayor McGinn last year  to say the idea is “utterly impractical.”

The Voice-owned Seattle Weekly, however, disproves Ferrer by requiring in-person age verification for sex ads placed in its print edition. But Village Voice likely does not want to expand on the Weekly’s efforts because it would cut into profits.

There’s an easy solution if Backpage executives really want to prove they’re allies in the fight against human trafficking: end adult services ads, which are, by the way, for services illegal in every state. However, we recognize that Backpage executives are hesitant to sacrifice profits in order to safeguard human trafficking victims. But at the same time, they shouldn’t lie to the public by claiming to be an “ally in the fight against human trafficking.”