Backpage.com Ensnared in Battle Over Adult Services Ads

  |  September 22, 2010   |  Comments

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal urges Backpage.com to close its adult services section.

Yesterday, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal urged Backpage.com to close its adult services section. Backpage refused.

An open letter, signed by Blumenthal and AGs from 20 other states, said that the online classifieds site, owned by Village Voice Media, had not done enough to stop prostitution, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation of children.

The letter claimed that Backpage.com was unable to screen ads well enough to eliminate prostitution ads, and that the attorneys general expected the volume of such ads to grow after craigslist.org closed its adult services section earlier this month.

Village Voice Media says that in the last two years, Backpage.com has had 58 million posts, of which 6 million were adult.

This is a game of whack-a-mole, says Peter Zollman, head of the AIM Group, a consultancy focused on interactive media and classified advertising.

"I understand and commend the goal of eliminating trafficking in women and children. That is despicable behavior, but it's difficult to see how eliminating the ads from craigslist or Backpage or anyplace else online makes it easier for law enforcement and the organizations who help fight trafficking to uncover and eliminate it," he said.

Last week, AIM Group said that, before it shuttered adult services listings, Craigslist was on track to generate almost $45 million in prostitution advertising in 2010.

The AIM Group researched prostitution ads on 12 websites in the United States at the request of a private non-profit foundation that fights trafficking in children and women, and projected that nine of the sites will generate almost $33 million this year in ads for thinly disguised prostitution services. Backpage.com will generate an estimated $17.5 million in online and print prostitution advertising in 2010, its report said.

In a follow-up press release issued on Tuesday, Village Voice Media refused to shut down its adult classifieds, stating that Backpage.com is a legal business and operates its website in accordance with all applicable laws. The company did not respond to phone calls or e-mail requesting comment.

Meanwhile, a former underage prostitute is suing Village Voice Media in U.S. District Court in Missouri for allowing her former pimp to post prostitution ads with pictures of her in Backpage.com.

In a press release issued on September 19, Village Voice Media pointed out that it assisted the FBI in the case by providing the perp's IP address and credit-card information. In the release, Steve Suskin, Village Voice Media's legal counsel, said, "Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 recognized that the very nature of the Internet meant that vast traffic depended on the ability of citizens to post directly onto websites like Backpage.com, Facebook, MySpace or eBay, or to have search engines like Google and Yahoo find postings without pre-screening or censorship. The responsibility, under the law, rests with the person supplying the post."

Craigslist.org and Backpage.com have seen steady traffic over the past year, according to Compete.com, with Craigslist at around 61.2 million unique monthly visitors and Backpage at 2.3 million. There were predictions that Craigslist's closing of its adult services section on September 7 would lead to a traffic spike on its rival, and Alexa shows a 4 percent increase in reach over the past seven days, as well as a 7 percent increase in the reach of Backpage.com over the past month.

Craigslist, by contrast, saw a decrease in reach of 3.2 percent over the last seven days, and a decrease of 3.8 percent over the last month.

Why are the attorneys general and organizations including Polaris Project, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, and the Salvation Army going after these sites, when adult services ads are all over the Internet and print? It's the sheer volume, says Andrea Austin, spokesperson for Polaris Project.

"It's more of a numbers game," she says. "A lot of the traffickers who would use craigslist to post the services of women and girls in their control are aware of these other sites and already using them. Our goal is to send a clear message to these other sites."

But critics, including Zollman, say that spreading out adult services ads makes it more difficult to police the business. He points out that Craigslist and Backpage are just as easy for law enforcement to use as they are for the bad guys. "Closing craigslist adult services changes the equation a little bit."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Kuchinskas

Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.

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