For Immediate Release - August 31, 2011

AG Coakley, 46 Attorneys General Seek Answers From Backpage.com on How Online Advertiser Prevents Facilitation of Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation

AG Letter Cites More Than 50 Cases Involving Trafficking or Attempted Trafficking Of Minors Through Backpage.com, Including Alleged Case In Quincy

BOSTON - Attorney General Martha Coakley and 46 other state attorneys general today called for information about how Backpage.com attempts to remove advertising for sex trafficking, especially advertisements 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 and yet the chief legal officers of numerous states have found hundreds of ads on Backpage.com's regional sites that clearly involve illegal services.

The letter says the website for illegal sex ads is a hub 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.

"Children are being forced into prostitution both in Massachusetts and across the country, and those traffickers are being given a tool to make this even easier." said AG Coakley. "We urge Backpage.com to stop child sex trafficking on the site by completely removing all adult service advertisements."

In many cases involving human trafficking on Backpage.com, law enforcement has found that minors are, in fact, often coerced. In May, a Dorchester man was charged with allegedly forcing a 15-year-old girl into a Quincy motel to have sex with various men for $100 to $150 an hour. To find customers, the man allegedly posted a photo of the girl on Backpage.com. 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 and forced the girls to have sex with men who answered the online ads. Backpage.com charges $1 and up for such ads.

Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is a top provider of "adult services" advertisements. The multimedia company, which owns 13 weekly newspapers in the United States, 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 August 2010, AG Coakley called on Craigslist to remove the adult services section of its website because of the facilitation of prostitution and human trafficking of men, women and children. In September 2010, Craigslist removed that section of their website. In October 2010, AG Coakley held a public hearing to address the public safety concerns surrounding the role of websites in facilitating human trafficking and the illegal sex trade. Early this year, seeking to eradicate the exploitation of victims for sexual servitude and labor, AG Coakley and a coalition of legislators, law enforcement, and advocates, including lead sponsors Senator Mark Montigny and House Judiciary Chairman Eugene O'Flaherty, filed comprehensive human trafficking legislation.

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