T.C. Hawkins, 14 years old, lived with her mother in Memphis, Tennessee. According to police, this past July, a female neighbor asked her to babysit, and while she was over, convinced her to work as a prostitute. The neighbor then allegedly took her shopping for a slutty outfit, photographed her with her legs open, and advertised her on Backpage.com, the online classifieds site.
A deluge of responses led to a $40 blowjob along a desolate East Memphis boulevard dotted with cheap motels.
Backpage.com has long been the subject of intense controversy over cases just like this. The site is currently being sued by three women in the Boston area who say they were sold for sex on the site as minors. Federal legislation has even been proposed to effectively ban Backpage and other sites that publish adult services ads, despite the First Amendment threats that this would pose.
But in the case of T.C. Hawkins, Backpage.com’s role as villain isn’t quite so clear cut. Memphis police were able to crack the case using a startup called RescueOps, which archives and analyzes data from Backpage.com. Using RescueOps’ search tool, the Memphis Police Department followed up on a tip and retrieved the ad picturing Hawkins.
“At first when I interviewed them, everybody was like: ‘I don’t know nothing,’” says Lt. Wilton Cleveland of the Memphis Police Department. “Then we produced the ad, and they were more forthcoming.” The neighbor was subsequently arrested and her case is currently pending a Grand Jury investigation.
The use of Backpage.com as a tool to catch criminals represents an interesting paradox. While its critics deplore the ease and visibility the site offers to traffickers, those exact qualities make the site invaluable for people looking to bust traffickers. A small but growing number of law enforcement, such as members of the Memphis Police Department, but also free-speech advocates and consensual sex workers who use the site to advertise their services, begrudgingly defend Backpage. Their unlikely alliance offers a compelling alternative to the outrage that generally characterizes conversations about the smutty classifieds site.
Backpage.com isn’t the only adult classifieds site, but it’s certainly the most notorious. It came on the scene in 2010 after Craigslist caved to public pressure to take down its erotic services section over allegations of trafficking. The business of selling sex, largely, moved over to Backpage. Unlike Craigslist, Backpage.com’s owners (alt weekly publishers who later ditched their newspaper business) were not so willing to give in to public pressure, and have continued to operate escort ads alongside G-rated classified ads for things like childcare, apartments, and bookshelves.
Officially, the site’s rules prohibit prostitution (its lawyer told CNN it sells only “legal adult entertainment services” which include fetish services and sensual massage, for instance). In an email exchange, Backpage.com’s lawyer Liz McDougall explained that its advertisements go through several rounds of manual and algorithm-based reviews to filter out potential minor trafficking victims, and reports potential trafficking situations to law enforcement. And, she notes, the site responds to subpoenas within 24 hours.
“Identifying and vilifying a single U.S. website (previously Craigslist, now Backpage.com) as the cause of the problem [of trafficking] and the key to the solution are ill-founded and unproductive,” wrote McDougall. “Unless the Internet is wholly shut down, the end result of this strategy will be that our children are advertised through offshore websites who do not endeavor to prevent such activity… [who] can thumb their noses at U.S. law enforcement requests, even pleas, for evidence to find a child or stop a perpetrator.”
But Backpage’s critics say these types of characterizations of the site as a law enforcement ally are simply spin. The lawsuit filed by the three young women in Boston last month, for instance, noted numerous features that ostensibly make it easier for pimps to hide from law enforcement, including allowing posters to pay with Bitcoin and obscure their phone numbers with letters (e.g., “twoO13fourFive678niNe” rather than “201-345-6789”).
“No question that Backpage facilitates trafficking,” says Malika Saada Saar, executive director of Rights4Girls, a D.C.-based human rights organization focused on the issue of sexual violence towards women. “Backpage has made child trafficking its business model.”
Three states have tried to take down Backpage.com. New Jersey, Tennessee and Washington passed laws that would have made the site liable for hosting sex ads for underage girls. But Backpage.com successfully sued them both on the grounds that the laws violated the Communications Decency Act: that is, the part of that law that protects internet platforms from being held liable for content they host. The company was joined in its Washington suit by the Internet Archive, makers of the Way Back Machine. David Greene, Senior Staff Attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the Internet Archive, says these legal swipes at Backpage are deceivingly benign.
“While these efforts might be aimed at a bogeyman, and that bogeyman might be Backpage….these laws expose even good actors to the same liability,” says Greene, noting that any library or archive would also be vulnerable. What if, say, the Way Back Machine captured and preserved a Backpage.com webpage for posterity that happened to have an ad for a trafficked minor?. “If you become responsible for all this stuff you’re collecting, it makes it hard to collect,” says Greene.
But the Washington and New Jersey defeats haven’t stopped the groundswell of political condemnation of Backpage. Most recently, Senators Diane Feinstein of California (Democrat) and Mark Kirk of Illinois (Republican) introduced a much more sweeping bill called the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act (SAVE), which would make it a federal crime to host any adult services ads. A similar bill already passed the House last May.
Some of the most vocal opponents of this type of legislation, not surprisingly, are sex workers. Notwithstanding the potent narrative surrounding young girls pimped out online, there are also consensual sex workers over the age of 21 who rely on the Internet to run their businesses who are negatively affected by child trafficking laws.
“Backpage, and similar online forums provide a way for sex workers to work independently, deciding on the terms of our work, often avoiding management that we were reliant on prior to having a low cost accessible advertising service,” says Cyd Nova, programs director for the St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers and their families. For any small business person, sex worker included, the idea of not being able advertise online and promote one’s services on social media, etc, represents a major impediment. If the SAVE Act were passed, it would effectively cut off the Internet as a potential marketing tool for this real–albeit controversial–employment sector.
In the case of sex workers, it could even be dangerous. Last July, the FBI shut down a Bay Area-based website called MyRedBook.com which operated forums where sex workers could trade information about things like bad dates, as well providing as a place to advertise their services. Nova says he watched many former MyRedbook users switch over to doing street-based sex work or working under management, “which comes with more harassment, criminalization and less pay,” says Nova.
The SAVE Act is almost certainly not legally viable for the same reasons that the Washington and New Jersey laws weren’t. Nonetheless, it has serious political juice. 50 state attorneys general (as well as the attorneys general for Puerto Rico, Guam and DC) signed a letter supporting it.
It’s obvious why we should want to eliminate child trafficking. But is erasing its digital paper trail the best way to fight it?
Ryan Dalton, the muscled young lawyer in Memphis behind the startup, Rescue Forensics which makes RescueOps, doesn’t think so. He and some friends built the software with $80,000 in seed capital and has made back $15,000 in licensing fees since launching in August. RescueOps captures two years worth of archived Backpage.com ads, then packages that with a search tool that allows law enforcement (and only law enforcement) to comb the data in a variety of ways. They can, for instance, search via phone number, age range, date range, or keywords. He plans to expand to other escort ad sites over time. Currently, he says, RescueOps has been licensed by four police departments and the department of Homeland Security, with more deals in the works.
“Traffickers are always going to be on the Internet, even if there are protocols put in place like the SAVE act, they’re just going to go somewhere else,” says Dalton. “Tragically, this world isn’t going anywhere.”
That perspective makes sense coming from a guy running a for-profit business based on scraping Backpage data. But it’s more surprising, and more telling, when it comes from a police officer.
“Without that [Backpage] ad we wouldn’t have a case. That ad was the case,” says Lt. Wilton Cleveland of the Memphis Police Department, who used RescueOps to allegedly catch the neighbor who sold her babysitter on Backpage. “[Criminals] are going to advertise anyway,” says Cleveland, describing Backpage as a “coin toss” for law enforcement, meaning that on the one hand it provides a marketplace for the sale of underage girls, but on the other hand it’s the devil that he knows, so to speak. “There are so many underground websites that would be more difficult to find,” says Cleveland. “It’s easier to just police Backpage.”
Update: Three states passed laws that endeavored to restrict online adult advertising and Backpage successfully challenged all three. Tennessee was the third.