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Law Enforcement’s Backpage Problem

Shutting down the site’s adult services page could hamper efforts to recover missing children.

On Monday, online advertising directory Backpage announced it was shutting down its “adult services” page.

The news was hailed as a victory by Republican and Democratic officials alike, who view Backpage and its numerous, often illegal sex advertisements — in the Twin Cities alone, nearly 35,000 listings advertised the sale of young women in the first half of 2016 — as a bulwark of the Internet’s seedy underbelly.

But on the other side of the Capital, the site’s partial closure poses a major problem.

For years, Backpage also served as a resource for both local police forces and federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, providing leads to help track down victims of sex trafficking. (A spokesman for the FBI denied to comment on the record about the agency’s relationship with a specific company.)

Consider the Polk County, Florida Police Department, which arrested 128 people in a sex trafficking ring, including dozens of men seeking sex with young children. Or the Nashville law enforcement officials who months later arrested 41 people during a three-day undercover sex trafficking sting, including 18 men who paid to have sex with who they thought would be an underage female, and one man who was charged with possession and solicitation of a minor. Or the bust of the international sex trafficking ring that involved 17 people — five Minnesotans and 12 Thai nationals — who shipped young Thai women to cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., forcing them to work as sex slaves in apartments for upwards of 12 hours a day.

All of those efforts relied on combing through Backpage, matching images of young (mostly) girls posted on the site with those in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s database. But, simultaneously, a nearly two-year-long Congressional investigation has proceeded against the website. The investigation eventually concluded that it was “the leading online marketplace for commercial sex,” and that site administrators “sanitize the content of innumerable advertisements for illegal transactions” in order to keep the ads online. Backpage took its adult services page down shortly after that report was published Monday, though its founders continue to deny culpability for the illegal transactions.

Does the site’s usefulness for law enforcement outweigh the role it plays in fostering the sale of juveniles?

Sex workers and activists have long argued that using online advertising directories is one of the very limited ways women and men involved in sex work can maintain agency over their own bodies and reduce the need to use a pimp, many of whom are abusive and manipulative.

But for federal employees, Backpage’s demise proves another special kind of challenge: There is no clear consensus among government officials about whether or not sites like Backpage should exist, due to a fundamental question about its function. Does the site’s usefulness for law enforcement outweigh the role it plays in fostering the sale of juveniles?

Lauren McCarthy, an assistant professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst who specializes in sex trafficking patterns, calls this dynamic “a really significant tension” between federal agencies with conflicting interests.

Ideologically, the divide between Congress and law enforcement on how to tackle sex trafficking can be stark, she says.

Senator Claire McCaskill.

Senator Claire McCaskill.

That’s not the case in Congress, which McCarthy says has historically seen unprecedented levels of bipartisanship — a partnership that has resulted in laws that have taken a “not … very nuanced” blanket-solution approach to tackling what is an extremely intricate issue. “It’s one of the few issues where Republicans and Democrats come together,” she says.

And come together, they have: Led by Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the Senate made history during its investigation into Backpage’s alleged role in sex trafficking by voting to hold the site in contempt for refusing to turn over documents related to the investigation — the first time in 20 years legislators have voted to do so.

In December, former California Attorney General Kamala Harris launched a criminal complaint against Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin (Backpage’s CEO and two major partners, respectively) for making money from acts of prostitution.

McCaskill and Harris have referred to the site as an “online brothel.” While a spokesperson from McCaskill’s office didn’t return a request for comment, Portman’s press secretary, Emily Benavides, wrote in an email that Backpage is “the reason that so many vulnerable women and girls are being trafficked for sex right now.” (While an FBI spokesman declined to comment about the agency’s relationship with Backpage, he directed me to do a search on the FBI’s website of resolved sex trafficking cases that involved Backpage.)

A spokesperson for Backpage released a statement Monday arguing that Congress’ “act of censorship will not reduce the problem of human trafficking. Those who suggest otherwise … are deluding themselves and their constituencies. Instead, it undermines efforts by to cooperate with law enforcement.”

McCarthy notes that the FBI is likely to more warmly accept Backpage’s existence, since building cooperative relationships with external, private organizations can prove time consuming and difficult. Moreover, she says, since other similar online advertising directories for sex are likely to crop up in its place (shutting down the site’s more licentious pages doesn’t get rid of the demand for its services), there’s also the possibility that those iterations of Backpage will feature more sophisticated encryption technologies, and prove to be more difficult for federal agencies to penetrate. That’s not to mention local police departments, few of which have the financial capacity to train for the time-consuming work of conducting sex trafficking stings.

“I know personally a lot of law enforcement agencies and agents who were upset when Craigslist shut its page down [in 2010],” she says “For the agencies trained to use it, it can be helpful.”