Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Classified ads as a marketplace for sex

Here's a story about a classified ad sex site whose publishers were recently arrested, in a case that pits freedom of the press against accusations of making a market for illegal prostitution, and very illegal trafficking in children. The case may extend the criminal definition of illegal pimping to the owners of a newspaper that no one seems to dispute is used to advertise prostitution, among consenting adults and possibly also by nonconsenting adults and children.

Digital Pimps or Fearless Publishers?
The owners of Village Voice Media gamed the online classified business with Backpage.com and made millions. But when it became a breeding ground for child rape, the publishers became something else: defendants.  by Kate Knibbs

"Backpage is the most prominent online destination for on-demand paid sex in the United States, and according to the arrest warrant for Ferrer and others, it made nearly 99 percent of its over $50 million revenue in California from January 2013 to March 2015 from charging for erotic classified ads. It is, in essence, an escort advertising network nestled in a Craigslist knockoff.
"“Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement in October. Her office had brought the charges against the men in the middle of what would turn out to be her successful campaign for U.S. Senate.
"Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall called the arrests an “election year stunt.”
"Whether or not it was designed to be a brothel, and whether its owners are neutral web hosts attacked for political gain or nefarious pimps adept at skating the law, is what the court must decide.
"The executives at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) were also gratified.
The nonprofit views Backpage as so tightly tied to the sale of children for rape that the website is now the first place it searches for children reported missing. In a 2016 amicus brief, the organization outlined the ways in which it believes that Backpage has been deliberately optimized to keep the child trafficking industry going, including having relaxed posting rules for escort ads while requiring other sellers to provide valid telephone numbers. It also describes a case in which one child was “sold for sex more than 50 times on backpage.com beginning when she was 12 years old.” The organization has worked on more than 420 cases in which children were trafficked through Backpage.
“I don’t know that anyone really believes that there’s a way, with a website offering those services, to completely eliminate [the sex trade],” Staca Shehan, the executive director of the NCMEC’s Case Analysis Division, told me. “But there’s a lot to be done to reduce the likelihood, to reduce this website as a target to buy and sell children for sex.”
The relationship between Backpage and NCMEC was originally cooperative, but Shehan says it soured in 2013, when the center decided the site’s crackdown attempts were theater. She said that Backpage would voluntarily report that it took down one advertisement for a minor, but that her researchers would discover the same image of the child in many other posts that remained online and untouched. This infuriates Shehan. “Why would you report one, and not all the other ones that your website is hosting? Why wouldn’t you remove that ad if you suspect that a child is being sold for sex and block the individual user?” she said.
In March, the Senate voted unanimously to hold Ferrer in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena for a separate investigation into Backpage’s activities — the first contempt authorization in more than 20 years. This investigation paints Backpage as a deliberately sinister operation, claiming that the company edits advertisements to make them look less like sex trafficking. “Our investigation showed that Backpage ‘edits’ advertisements before posting them, by removing certain words, phrases, or images. For instance, they might remove a word or image that makes clear that sexual services are being offered for money. And then they would post this ‘sanitized’ version of the ad,” Senator Rob Portman said in a statement. “In other words, Backpage’s editing procedures, far from being an effective anti-trafficking measure, only served to sanitize the ads of illegal content to an outside viewer.”
While lawmakers like Portman see Backpage as a demonic helpmate for rapists and abusive pimps, the website has a reputation as a valuable safety tool within some sex worker communities.
Consenting, adult sex workers often praise Backpage for helping minimize the risks of their job. Sex worker advocacy groups have condemned the prosecution of Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin. In San Francisco, sex workers and supporters gathered to protest the Backpage arrests. “This culmination of a three-year investigation by the California government is a shocking waste of resources for a political stunt that leaves sex workers and trafficking victims stigmatized, isolated, and more vulnerable to violence,” the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project said in a statement condemning Ferrer’s arrest.
The phantoms of other shuttered and beleaguered sex ad sites worry sex workers who view digital classifieds as instrumental to their safety. RedBook, a long-running Bay Area hub for sex work ads, was shut down after an investigation by the IRS and FBI in 2014. “Authorities say the San Francisco–based website, which primarily served California and Nevada, facilitated prostitution and had to fall. Sex workers say the site provided a meager safeguard against predators, pimps, and cops,” the Sacramento News & Review wrote. “When it disappeared, the most at-risk workers — those of limited means and greatest need — were displaced to the streets.”
"While lurid and sad, the arrest report for Ferrer, Lacey, and Larkin has another striking feature: None of the incidents recounted involved the men arranging for or paying for sex, nor did they involve the participation of the men authorities describe as “pimps.” There is no mention of “pimping” in the traditional sense, the act of controlling sex workers, or arranging meet-ups, or taking a cut of their income. The men were arrested as pimps simply by dint of owning and operating a website where other people pimped, even though Backpage’s disclaimer instructs users to report underage trafficking and illegal activity.
The arrest warrant describes how a California Department of Justice agent personally called Ferrer to alert him of an illegal ad. Upending expectations, the warrant notes that the CEO promised to promptly remove this ad — and then kept his word and promptly removed it. So it isn’t that the website lacks moderation; the allegation is that Backpage’s moderation isn’t sufficient enough, and that insufficiency is tantamount to the act of pimping.
It is an unusual stretch of the definition of a very old crime. By arresting Backpage’s current and former executives, Harris was sending a message: If the definition of pimping hadn’t yet changed, she was trying to change it."

HT: Scott Cunningham


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