Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson


McKenna calls for an end to “online clearinghouse” for human trafficking

OLYMPIA – Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and 45 other attorneys general today called for information about how Backpage.com presumably attempts to remove advertising for sex trafficking, especially ads that could involve minors.

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.

The letter says 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.

“Traffickers who exploit runaways and other disadvantaged kids shouldn’t be provided with a powerful online clearinghouse,” McKenna said. “The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to take down adult services advertisements altogether and take aggressive steps to be sure such ads don’t surface elsewhere on the site.”

McKenna added that kids aren’t capable, legally or otherwise, to consent to be sold for sex. And regardless of a prostitute’s age, it’s difficult to know whether the person advertised is being coerced.

In many cases involving human trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement finds that minors are, in fact, often coerced. Prosecutors in Benton County, Wash., are handling a case in which teen girls say they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on Backpage.com.  One of the adults rented a hotel room in Kennewick and forced the girls to have sex with men who answered the online ads, for which Backpage.com charges $1 and up.

Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is the top provider of “adult services” advertisements. The multimedia company, which owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States including the Seattle Weekly, admits its involvement in advertising illegal services. In a meeting with staff at the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, Village Voice board member Don Moon readily acknowledged prostitution ads appear on the Web site. And in a June 29 article published nationally by the Village Voice, the corporation criticized those concerned about child sex trafficking as “prohibitionists bent on ending the world’s oldest profession,” acknowledging that, as a seller of adults services ads, “Village Voice has a stake in this story.”

Industry analysts suggest that Village Voice’s stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue. Many state attorneys general believe that Backpage.com is attempting to minimize the impact of child sex trafficking because they fear it will turn attention to the company’s robust prostitution advertising business. While Backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general involved in today’s letter 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 from state attorneys general makes a series of requests to Backpage.com, asking that the company willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena. For example, in order to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, the attorneys general ask that Backpage.com describe in detail its understanding of what precisely constitutes “illegal activity,” and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category. The attorneys general also ask, among other requests, how many advertisements in its adult section and subsections have been submitted since Sept. 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, McKenna helped lead 42 other attorneys general in reaching an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like distributing child pornography and human trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its “erotic services” section altogether in May 2009. McKenna, president of the National Association of Attorneys General, in June announced a national initiative to reduce human trafficking.

The states signing on to today’s letter are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming and the territory of Guam.


Janelle Guthrie, Director of Communications, (360) 586-0725