Even as a SXSW panel discussed how online classifieds service Backpage.com is a hotbed for sex trafficking and the U.S. Senate gets set to take nearly unprecedented action by holding the site in contempt for facilitating human trafficking, police in Austin say the number of Backpage ads offering illicit hookups—some of which may well involve girls forced to provide sex in exchange for money—continues to blossom during SXSW and other big events.
Many "girls are coming here because of SXSW," and soliciting paid sex, detective Tonya Jefferson of Austin’s Missing Persons and Cold Cases unit, told Fast Company. Sometimes, Jefferson added, the girls in question are victims of human trafficking, and are forced to meet with paying clients. In some cases, Jefferson said, police are made aware of illicit liaisons arranged via Backpage—and through other methods—after men report that they've been robbed by someone they met via the service.
"If someone stole your car [and you want insurance reimbursement] you have to make a report, you don't have a choice," Jefferson said, explaining why men who had solicited sex might call the police despite the embarrassment. "If they robbed you of everything you have, your wallet, your keys, sometimes you don't have a choice but to call the police."
However, Jefferson said there's no way to directly link the increase in escort ads on Backpage to actual arrests for prostitution or human trafficking unless police do a sting.
Backpage offers classifieds in many cities around the world, and in many categories. Its rudimentary design is reminiscent of Craigslist, but unlike its more famous competitor, it offers an adult section that includes escort services where police contend some ads are a front for illegal prostitution or human trafficking. Later this week, the U.S. Senate is set to hold the Backpage site in contempt, the first Senate action of its kind in 20 years, according to Politico.
The Austin police unit focused on human trafficking is paying particular attention to the site this week, and Jefferson said Backpage’s escorts section is particularly bustling during SXSW and similar mass gatherings.
"We're monitoring Backpage, and we monitor it on a regular basis, so we know what the fluctuation is in the amount of entries that are there," Jefferson explained.
Asked if there's been at least a doubling of ads in Backpage's escorts section during SXSW, she responded, "Oh, for sure. If you go and look a week from now, it's not going to be even half of" what it is right now.
Of course, not all prostitution constitutes human trafficking. Many sex workers choose their profession. Still, police are tracking the instances of ads either way.
Austin police have noted a steep rise in human trafficking in recent years, telling local news site KVUE.com that in 2013, there were 54 cases, a number that swelled to 117 by 2015.
And it's not just in Austin. A recent study by Carnegie Mellon University found a strong link between major events, like the Super Bowl, and increases in human trafficking advertisements all around the country. The study (PDF) did not definitely correlate a link between the increase in ads and actual human trafficking, however.
"The results found that while there was a considerable increase in the number of such ads surrounding the Super Bowl, other events like a Memorial Day motorcycle rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina," NBC News wrote about the study, "and various industry conferences had a bigger impact than expected, suggesting that resources devoted to combating the problem of forced prostitution have been misdirected."
Jefferson concurred. "Girls that are are looking to do prostitution or advertise on Backpage are coming here because of a major event like SXSW," she said. "We've had them brought in from Atlanta and from other states, just to do human trafficking during major events. And all major cities are having this problem when there's major events.
But the Carnegie Mellon study did specifically note that there were substantially more escort ads observed during last year's SXSW than expected.
Here in Austin, Jefferson said she didn't know if local police had run any such operations during this year's SXSW. Earlier this year, however, police in Houston used Backpage, and to a lesser-extent Craigslist, to set up a series of sting operations that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of people involved in a prostitution ring.
Backpage is hardly new to controversy. Just this week, both the Seattle Times and The New York Times ran withering op-eds aimed at the service’s inability, or refusal, to forswear sex ads. And in 2011, 49 state attorneys general wrote an open letter to the company castigating it for publicly saying it is not responsible for ads posted by its users and that it was doing all it could to keep illegal activity off the site.
Yet here in Austin, 12 years after Backpage’s founding, and 11 years after it began hosting "escort" ads, the service is a hotbed for ads aimed at visiting SXSW attendees looking to easily find illicit liaisons. Fast Company found that some of the listings explicitly offered "SXSW specials" for attendees.
Jefferson added that many of the hotels here in the Austin capital, from high-end establishments like the W to lower-end operations like Motel 6, were being used for these liaisons, but hotel management may well not be aware of the activity.
Backpage did not respond to Fast Company requests for comment made via an email address meant for questions related to abuse of the site and through a customer service voicemail. Backpage does not provide any corporate contact information.
Backpage was formerly owned by the Phoenix-based newspaper publishing company New Times. In 2014, according to the Dallas Business Journal, it was sold to an unnamed Dutch company. According to Fast Company's research, that company appears to be called Website Technologies. The site still seems to operate out of Dallas.
The site’s terms of service prohibits the "Posting [of] any solicitation directly or in ‘coded’ fashion for any illegal service exchanging sexual favors for money or other valuable consideration." The site also states that it "bans any material...that exploits minors in any way [or that] in any way constitutes or assists in human trafficking."
Yet behavior easily found on Backpage’s escorts section directly contradicts those rules. Jefferson said that many teens who solicit paid sex on the site do so using language filled with special characters meant to mask things like addresses that are needed to arrange meetups. Many of them will also use burner phones to avoid detection.
On further review, Fast Company found that relatively few of the listings on Backpage’s escort section mention SXSW explicitly, but a number use variations on "new in town" or "just visiting." In the body rubs section, a commonly used phrase is "SXSW special," and many of the listings offer outcall, meaning the escorts will come to the client’s hotel or home.
For example, one ad reads: "SXSW SPECIAL. Tantric sensual journey of your erotic awakening."
Another reads, "New Too Town Sweet sexual chocolate..A.T.X show me Love - 26 (North Austin surrounding areas)."
Serendipitously, a SXSW panel on Tuesday discussed the extent of human trafficking on Backpage. "The web has made it too easy for girls to be trafficked on loosely regulated sites like Backpage," the panel’s description begins.
Many have wondered why this site has been allowed to continue for more than a decade. The escort section appeared on the site in 2005, according to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Vick has noted suspicious activity to potentially evade law enforcement, such as the domain registration changing hands almost every day since January of 2016. Meanwhile, Backpage.com has jumped from hosting company to hosting company. In recent history, the owners have changed the hosting company up to four times per year. That type of activity would not be typical for a legitimate business, Vick explained.
The law is on Backpage’s side. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, attempts to pass laws that would hold a website like Craigslist, WordPress, Facebook, or even Backpage accountable for the content posted by users have been defeated. Instead, law enforcement has experimented with other methods to bring down the adult section of the site, such as pressuring Visa and MasterCard to cut off payment access. EFF has pushed back against these measures, arguing that such laws that protect these sites underpin free speech, and that regulation should be done by the courts, and not by corporations.
"Just because there’s a listing doesn’t mean there’s a crime," Vick added.
But the law doesn’t protect Backpage indiscriminately. In 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in favor of three girls who claimed they were sold as prostitutes on the sites. The lawsuit alleged that there was enough evidence to prove that Backpage actually helped develop the content of the ads, rather than just hosting them. It claimed that Backpage provides instructions to pimps about how to write a successful ad.
"The intent of the Communications Decency Act is not meant to open a blind alley for prostitution and child sex trafficking," Erik Bauer, the attorney representing the victims, told World Magazine in September, 2015.