Backpage.com has come under a great deal of scrutiny as of late due to the number of cases of sex trafficking that involved advertisements on the site. Previously, the majority of sex ads were being placed on Craigslist until they were forced to shut down their adult pages for specifically the same reason Backpage is being judged.
At this point it is free and anonymous to post an adult listing on Backpage. Because of this it is very easy for traffickers to advertise their victims. The lead attorney for Backpage combats the calls to shut down the site by claiming the site has a great potential to be a tool against trafficking rather than a tool being exploited by traffickers. This, however, is questionable. Village Voice Media, who runs Backpage, makes upwards of $20 million a year from the adult listings and so they are demonstrating resistance to shutting down the listings.
When considering what actions would be best to take in order to combat trafficking several come to mind:
- Would shutting down Backpage’s adult listings stop trafficking or would the listings just move to another site? Would the listings move further underground and harder to track?
- How viable would creating a task force in conjunction with Backpage and law enforcement to combat trafficking by engaging backpage.com as an open-source database
Part of me thinks shutting down any adult/escort listings on backpage.com would be the right step, however, I also believe that Backpage provides a great opportunity. All of the postings are in public space and readily accessible.
Ultimately, I think Backpage cooperating with law enforcement and other agencies in order to combat human trafficking is the right choice, rather than completely eradicating the vulnerable listings themselves. By working with tech companies and law enforcement I hope that Backpage will be useable as a tool to combat trafficking. It is extremely important that any task force assigned to address the multitude of trafficking cases on Backpage and to search through the listings in order to find victims is at peak efficiency and capacity.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the meeting that takes place this week as part of the new Department of Justice task force on human trafficking in California. The article claims that by the end of the summer, the task force plans to issue a report that will contain best-practice guidelines for law enforcement, tech companies and services providers combating human trafficking locally and online. I do hope that the task force goes beyond guidelines. There needs to be collaboration amongst the tech companies to create an algorithm that will search through Backpage and flag the potential postings involving human trafficking so that law enforcement may then look at those listings and decide if further action is necessary.
There is no easy position to take when discussing human trafficking and technology. On the one hand if you leave the tools for traffickers online they will exploit them to their advantage and even with the right equipment and task force we wouldn’t be able to identify them all. On the other hand, if we take the easy route and simply ban Backpage from allowing adult listings then the advertisements will move to sites that may not be as identifiable and more disparate, making it harder for law enforcement to track.