Letter To Village Voice Media

December 2, 2011

Jim Larkin, CEO and Chair

Members of the Board of Directors

Village Voice Media

Dear Mr. Larkin and Village Voice Media Board of Directors:

We are experts in the anti-human trafficking field who for years have been on the front lines working directly with victims, providing clinical and social services, studying and researching trafficking, and developing and advocating for prevention policies. We stand together asking you to protect women and girls from others’ commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of them by immediately and permanently shutting down the entire Adult section of your subsidiary’s website, Backpage.com.

We stand with Groundswell, Auburn Theological Seminary, and the 36 moral and religious leaders of many creeds and backgrounds who have asked you to commit to running your business without compromising the lives of our nation’s young girls and boys, [1] and adult women.

We stand with the 21 states’ Attorneys General,[2] including then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal who in September 2010 urged you to immediately close your Adult section, noting that “Adult services sections are little more than online brothels, enabling human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children.”[3]

We stand with the 51 Attorneys General from throughout the United States who in August 2011 wrote in a letter to Backpage.com – “We are increasingly concerned about human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors. Backpage.com is a hub for such activity.” – and have demanded that you eliminate all of your Adult ads.[4]

We also stand with those law enforcement officials who disagree with your approach of preventing others’ use of your website to traffic women and minors, making such statements as: “Rescuing children from being sexually exploited is a top priority for our police department, but we can never get ahead of this crime while a company like Backpage.com profits from the sexual exploitation of children and uses their newsrooms to minimize the extent of the issue.” [5]

Backpage.com officials have readily acknowledged that sex ads of minors placed by adults can appear on your website. According to the Attorneys General’s letter, “In a meeting with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, Backpage.com vice president Carl Ferrer acknowledged that the company identifies more than 400 ‘adult services’ posts every month that may involve minors.”[6] Furthermore, during the first eight months of 2011, Backpage.com reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) 1,595 cases of suspected use of juveniles in sex ads, as NCMEC has publicly stated. Additionally, the Attorneys General independently have tracked “more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com.”[7]The National Human Trafficking Resource Center also has received 147 calls (both tip and crisis calls) about Backpage.com in three years and reports of 92 potential trafficking cases on Backpage.com, 23 of which referenced minors.[8]Furthermore, just last week, the Brooklyn District Attorney indicted two individuals on charges of beating and forcing into prostitution a 13-year-old girl and of advertising her services with photographs on Backpage.com.[9] And in September, Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal reported that a federal grand jury indicted two individuals for prostituting two teenage girls – ages 15 and 16 – who were solicited through advertisements on Backpage.com.[10]

Backpage.com lists countless advertisements of adult “services” in every one of its markets. These ads demonstrate that others could be using the website to traffic adult women, in addition to girls. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has received reports of approximately 1,433 possible cases of sex trafficking involving adult females, about 54 of which potentially involve the sex trafficking of women by others on Backpage.com.[11]

When Village Voice Media and Backpage.com officials were presented with this data, they decided to introduce several safety and security enhancements “to better protect our community. “[12] These new policies included, but were not limited to, no nudity, key word searches to identify misuse, increased staff to monitor illegal ads, and reporting of ads featuring possible minors to NCMEC.[13] Nonetheless, the Attorneys General have stated publicly that they do not believe the steps Backpage.com has taken are a genuine effort to improve safety and security. They wrote, “We believe Backpage.com sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.”[14]

While we applaud your implementation of safeguards and your cooperation with law enforcement officials, we agree with the Attorneys General that your efforts fall far short of what is needed to eliminate the use of your website by others to exploit women and minors. The bottom line is that Backpage.com simply has no way of guaranteeing that it can stop this exploitation if it continues to accept and place Adult ads.

Backpage.com has stated that you have invested heavily in implementing safety measures on your website, however the reality, as demonstrated by the recent indictments in Brooklyn and Memphis, is that adults are still able to traffic women and girls on the website. Backpage.com has also stated that the level of resources you have dedicated to implementing safety measures “compares favorably with any other web or social media site,”[15] we, however, feel this is the wrong metric for evaluating whether the problem of trafficking is being fully addressed.

We recognize that Backpage.com may lose the considerable revenue it generates by the Adult ads. However, a recent article suggests that Backpage.com would still be a successful business if it did not operate the Adult section of its website.[16] We also believe that a strong case cannot be made for a business to continue that cannot completely prevent others’ prostitution and victimization of women and minors – despite significant efforts otherwise.

The Attorneys General and clerical leaders in this country were adamant in their letters. We are adamant too. We believe that the sexual exploitation of women and minors is a form of violence against them and a violation of their basic human rights.

We call on you to immediately and permanently shut down the Adult section of your website to ensure that women and girls can no longer be abused, bought, and sold by others using advertisements they placed on Backpage.com.

SIGNED:

Andrea Powell
Co-Founder & Executive Director
FAIR Girls

Kaffie McCullough
Campaign Director
A Future. Not A Past

Amb. Mark P. Lagon
Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
Former U.S. Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking

Tania DoCarmo
Founder & Chair
Chab Dai USA

Amy Hartman
National Director
Cherish Our Children, Minneapolis

Rachel Durchslag
Executive Director
Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE)

Donna M. Hughes
Founder
Citizens Against Trafficking

Norma Ramos, Esq.
Executive Director
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)

Tina Frundt
Executive Director & Founder
Courtney's House

Dr. Daniel Bercu
President & Founder
Doctors At War, Inc.

Carol Arthur
Executive Director
Domestic Abuse Project

Carol Smolenski
Executive Director
ECPAT-USA

Yasmeen Hassan
Global Director
Equality Now

Kristyn Komarnicki
Editor
PRISM Magazine
Evangelicals for Social Action

Benjamin Nolot
President & Founder
Exodus Cry

Robert J. Benz
Founder & Executive Vice President
Frederick Douglass Family Foundation

Colette Bercu
CEO & Founder
Free for Life International

Karen Strauss
Director of Programs
Free the Slaves

Stephanie Davis
Executive Director
Georgia Women for a Change, Inc.

Rachel Lloyd
Executive Director & Founder
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)

Laura J. Lederer, J.D.
President

Global Centurion

Maria A. Trujillo
Executive Director
Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition

Monica R. Garcia
Interim Director
Project Rescue Anti-Human Trafficking Program
International Institute of Connecticut, Inc.

Sharon Simpson Joseph
Executive Director
Juvenile Justice Fund

Rob Morris
President & Co-Founder
Love 146

Rus Funk 
Executive Director 
MensWork

Stephanie Holt
Executive Director
Mission 21

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
Executive Director & Co-Founder
MomsRising

Lisa Goldblatt Grace, LICSW, MPH

Co-Founder & Director
My Life My Choice
A Program of Justice Resource Institute

Philip J. Cenedella
Executive Director
National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates

Chris Newlin
Executive Director
National Children's Advocacy Center

Sonia Ossorio
Executive Director
National Organization for Women, New York City Chapter

Norma Ryan
Administrator
Not By Chance

Kathryn Xian
Executive Director

Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery

Dianne Post
International Human Rights Attorney
Phoenix Women Take Back the Night

Bradley Myles
Executive Director & CEO Polaris

Michelle Miller
Executive Director
Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity (REED)

Kathie Logan
Program Manager
Sexual Assault Center of NWGA

Cassondra Johnson Blackbird
Executive Director
Sexual Assault Program of Beltrami, Cass & Hubbard Counties in Bemidji Minnesota

Linda Smith (U.S. Congress, 1994-98)
Founder & President
Shared Hope International

Rigmor Schneider
Interim Executive Director
Somaly Mam Foundation

Gordon Heller
Chair
Steering Committee
Southeast Dayton Weed and Seed

Cheryl A. Thomas
Director
Women's Human Rights Program

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa
President
The National Crittenton Foundation

Imani Walker
Co-Founder and Executive Director
The Rebecca Project for Human Rights

Frank M. Director
PROMISE Program
The Salvation Army

Jennifer M. Assistant Director
PROMISE Program
The Salvation Army

Deena Graves
Executive Director
Traffick911

Jeni Gamble, MSSW, PhD
Executive Director
Washington Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE)

Mary Frances Bowley
President & Executive Director

 

Wellspring Living

Becky McDonald
President
Women At Risk International

Lee Roper-Batker
President & CEO
Women’s Foundation of Minnesota

Laura Penny
Executive Director
Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona


[1] “An Open Letter to Village Voice Media." Advertisement. The New York Times. 25 Oct. 2011. Print.
[2] States’ Attorneys General. “Re: Backpage.com.” Letter to Samuel Fifer. 21 Sept. 2010. Connecticut Office of the Attorney General.
[3] “Attorney General Leads 21 States In Calling On Backpage To Close Adult Services Section.” Press Release. 21 Sept. 2010. Connecticut Office of the Attorney General.
[4] National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG). “Re: Backpage.com’s ongoing failure to effectively limit prostitution and sexual trafficking activity on its website.” Letter to Samuel Fifer. 31 Aug. 2011.
[5] Gutierrez, Scott. “McGinn: Police rescue 3 children advertised in backpage.com sex ads.” Weblog entry. Strange bedfellows. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 28 Sept. 2011.
[6] NAAG. Letter to Samuel Fifer.
[7] Ibid.
[8] National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Polaris. Case data provided covers the period from 8/23/2008 to 9/15/2011. Please note that these statistics may be subject to change.
[9] “Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes announces four indictments in two sex trafficking cases involving 12-and-13-year old victims.” Press Release. 21 Nov. 2011. Kings County District Attorney’s Office.
[10] Warren, Beth. “Pair charged with prostituting two teenage girls.” The Commercial Appeal. 1 Nov. 2011. [11] National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Polaris. Case data provided covers the period from 12/7/2007 to 10/15/2011. Please note that these statistics may be subject to change.
[12] “Safety and Security Enhancements.” Weblog entry. The Backpage.com Blog. 11 July 2011.
[13] Ibid.
[14] NAAG. Letter to Samuel Fifer.
[15] Fifer, Samuel. “Re: Response of Backpage.com to NAAG letter of August 31, 2011.” Letter to Hedda Litwin. 23 Sept. 2011.
[16] Rainey, James. “Village Voice Media defends its Backpage.com ad policy.” The Los Angeles Times, 28 Nov. 2011.

 
 
 
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