Legal Industry News

May 23, 2012

State Attorneys General Respond to Backpage.com’s Refusal to Take Down Its Adult Services Section

State Attorneys General are investigating Backpage.com’s adult services advertisements. State Attorneys General have rejected a demand by Backpage.com that the Attorney General stop asking for the site’s adult services sections to be taken down.

In a recent letter, Backpage.com’s General Counsel, Liz McDougall, indicated that the company would not agree to further conversations with Attorney Generals unless officials agreed in advance that they would not call for the elimination of adult ads on the site.

The Attorneys General decided to make the company’s demand public after McDougall claimed in the Seattle Times, and in several other interviews, that Backpage.com is “an ally in the fight against human trafficking”.

“It’s hypocritical for Backpage representatives to tell the public they cooperate with law enforcement when they’ve been so unresponsive to the chief law enforcement officers of 48 states and three territories,” said Washington State Attorney General, Rob McKenna. McKenna also chairs the working group of 48 states with Missouri Attorney General, Chris Koster, and Connecticut Attorney General, George Jepsen. “Now they demand that we take the most effective solution — the removal of adult services — off the table before they’re even willing to cooperate.”

McKenna added that claims of law-enforcement support for the company were refuted last week by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who found that many of the sources cited by Backpage representatives as supportive, including Ernie Allen, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, actually want Backpage’s adult services sections taken down. Contrary to Backpage’s claims about police support for the site, Cooper found that the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas Police Departments all agree that Backpage is a problem and should cease running prostitution ads.

“One reason police are critical of Backpage.com is because too often the victims of prostitution are children,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “The Attorney Generals are committed to finding any solution to prevent the adult services section of Backpage from being used for human trafficking. It is disappointing that Backpage will not make the same commitment, and instead demands that we take possible solutions off the table.”

Backpage.com attorneys took nearly eight months to respond to the August 2011 inquiry from the attorney generals about how the site tries to prevent the exploitation of minors.

In that August 2011 letter to the online classified site’s lawyers, the attorneys general said that Backpage.com claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity. Yet, the chief legal officers of several states have found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com’s regional sites that are clearly for illegal services.

The letter stated 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. These cases involved 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 attorney generals asking that the adult services site be taken down.

To recall, in 2008, 42 attorneys general reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes like human trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its “erotic services” section altogether in May 2009.

Backpage.com’s March 23 response did not answer fully most of the questions posed. Rather, McDougall presented an ultimatum that the attorney generals drop their request for the adult services sections to come down. “If NAAG and its members are interested in cooperation, and will stop instead simply continuing demanding elimination of the adult category,” McDougall wrote, “please let me know by March 28, 2012 so that we may determine how to proceed.”

Connecticut Attorney General, George Jepsen said, “The goal is to protect children from being sold. We are open to any workable solution, but if the only way to do that is to remove all adult services advertisements, then the attorneys general must insist the option remain on the table.”

Image Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Palto

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