Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

BackpageABCABC Television's "Nightline" program Tuesday night aired a terrific investigation into the trafficking of minors via the online classified site Backpage.com. The story centers on an heroic survivor. "Jessica," now 23,  was put on Backpage by her pimp:

"Every pimp has a series of rules that each girl is required to follow," she said. "There was a time where I didn't obey the rules. My pimp decided to take a potato peeler... He came, grabbed me by my throat, held me against the wall, took the potato peeler, carved it into my face.

"[He] then ate the skin and told me I'm his forever and if I ever leave, worse things will happen to me," she said.

McKennaNightlineThat pimp is now, thankfully, behind bars. But Backpage continues to operate and, through inaction, allows the victimization of minors and others through ads posted on the site. More from Nightline:

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage and dozens of alternative newspapers around the country, including the venerable New York City publication, The Village Voice, has a moral obligation to shut down the ads.

"With Backpage being such a high profile company, they're normalizing this practice of advertising prostitution online," McKenna said. "They're essentially sending a signal 'hey this is OK, there's nothing really wrong with this,' when in fact it's resulting in the massive victimization of women and girls across our country. Will it move? It might well. But we can't allow this open casbah -- this market place to exist in such a high profile fashion because it encourages others to do even more of it."

You might recall that on Aug. 31, 2011, McKenna led the majority of state attorneys general to press Backpage for more information about how, exactly, they try to screen out minors advertised on the site:

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

“It does not require forensic training to understand that these advertisements are for prostitution,” the attorneys general wrote.

Backpage provided an incomplete response a month later. Meanwhile, more AGs signed on:

More states and U.S. territories have joined the effort to hold Backpage.com accountable. Since the original announcement, two big states – New York and New Jersey – added their names to the list of those concerned. A total of 51 attorneys general, representing 48 states and three territories, have now signed the letter pressing Backpage.com to provide answers about why their site has become a hub for sex trafficking and what they’re doing about it.

McKenna added that there’s one definitive way for Backpage.com to settle the matter.

“The adult services section should be shut down,” McKenna said. “Prostitution disproportionately harms kids, runaways and former victims of child sexual abuse. It’s unfortunate that businesses like Backpage.com profit from that kind of exploitation.”

Finally, last month Backpage provided a more detailed response to state attorneys general. We're reviewing the materials. Meanwhile, Backpage -- and parent company Village Voice Media -- faces almost daily criticisms from government, non-profits, trafficking victims and their families And arrests involving minors trafficked on the site continue.

-Dan Sytman-