9 Things You Need to Know about Backpage.com and Sex Trafficking
1. Backpage is the world’s largest classified ad company, with sites in 431 U.S. cities and another 444 worldwide. According to Dawn Hawkins, executive director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Backpage posts one million sex ads a day.
Let that sink in.
2. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) told a recent Senate subcommittee that 71 percent of all suspected child sex trafficking cases have a link to Backpage. According to the Justice Department, more than half of known victims in the U.S. are younger than 17. Some are as young as 7.
3. Backpage is a profoundly lucrative sex-ad business. In 2010, after Craigslist ended their adult ad section in response to public pressure, Backpage’s adult ads and subsequent profit margins began to soar. As of 2014, Backpage had an EBITDA margin (measure of profitability) of 82 percent, compared with a 9.3 percent average for similar online service companies.
4. Backpage has been accused by several advocacy groups—including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), Shared Hope, and Polaris—of actively assisting pimps by editing ads to avoid detection from law enforcement while increasing their customer base.
5. On March 17, the Senate held Backpage in contempt for refusing to comply with their subpoena. Two other Backpage employees pled the fifth.
6. Backpage has prevailed in state courts repeatedly on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act protects them from prosecution for the criminal wrongdoing of their customers. Denying they are co-conspirators, Backpage maintains they merely provide a forum for free speech in the form of advertising. In December, Backpage sued the Department of Justice to prevent the enforcement of a new anti-trafficking law.
7. Backpage is the go-to site for law enforcement investigating sex trafficking. As law enforcement has often testified, though, Backpage frequently removes ads posted in connection with sting operations. Further, Backpage has encouraged their customers to use anonymous payment methods, making it virtually impossible to trace to traffickers.
8. Backpage often refuses to remove ads identified as “sex trafficking” by parents and the NCMEC. Parents who have identified their children in Backpage ads and requested the agency remove them are often greeted with an automated response stating ads won’t be removed until multiple users request a specific ad be removed multiple times.
9. Last year, American Express, MasterCard and Visa all stopped processing Backpage payments, fearing the possibility of illegal transactions after Chicago Sheriff Thomas Dart wrote a letter requesting the companies remove the use of their cards on Backpage. Although Backpage successfully took the Sheriff to court, claiming he “threatened” the credit card companies, none have opted back in.