Editor’s Note: Andrea Powell is founder & executive director of FAIR Girls, a D.C. based organization providing safe housing and emergency and long- term services to survivors of human trafficking. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
On January 9, after an investigation lasting over 21 months, a Senate subcommittee published a scathing report, finding that classified ads website Backpage.com knowingly facilitated online child sex trafficking on the “adult” section of its website.
According to the report, Backpage did so by, among other things, filtering the text of advertisements to screen out words like “rape,” “schoolgirl” and “lolita” before posting them, to conceal the intent of the ads. Backpage also did not remove these advertisements or report them to law enforcement.
These findings are no surprise to FAIR Girls, where approximately 90% of the young women and girls we serve – some as young as 14 – were sold by their traffickers on Backpage.
It also is consistent with first-hand accounts. For example, the mother of a 14-year-old girl sold on Backpage reported to the Senate subcommittee that her daughter had been trafficked through the website, and that even after she was recovered, ads containing explicit photographs of the girl were still being shown on the website.
She said she requested numerous times that the ads be taken down, and although Backpage eventually removed the photos, it did not do so immediately.
Following up on its findings, on January 10, the Senate subcommittee was scheduled to question the company’s CEO, owners, general counsel, and COO. Backpage executives refused to testify. The day before that hearing, the website closed its “adult” section in the United States.
Backpage said in a statement that “new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”
Although this development is a clear milestone in combating sex trafficking in the United States, to consider it a complete or definitive victory would be short-sighted.
First, within hours of the closure of the “adult” section, sex advertisements began to appear on a different section of Backpage.
Second, it would be naive to think that other sites will not fill any void left by it.
Third, it is clear that the online marketplace can aid law enforcement, meaning that to shut it down completely would have drawbacks.
While Backpage has reported some potential victims to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and law enforcement, its screening practices assisted advertisers, including pimps, but not law enforcement.
In a letter submitted to the Senate subcommittee, Backpage described human trafficking as “abhorrent,” and claimed to have spent “thousands of hours and millions of dollars” bringing traffickers to justice.
However, online classified ads businesses could institute age and identify verification, proactively remove and report flagged sex ads to law enforcement, and adopt a consistent, nationwide child sex trafficking victim identification and reporting mechanism.
These steps could prevent sex trafficking without interfering with consensual sex workers’ safety or harming internet freedom.
At the heart of this Backpage fight, as well as almost all fights on behalf of human trafficking victims, is recognizing that these survivors need and deserve holistic justice.
After the Senate hearing, the owners and senior management of Backpage walked out of the room free to return to their lives, business as usual, while the victims of sex trafficking must carry the vestiges of their abuse and trafficking with them always.
Their justice is denied when their traffickers and those accused of facilitating their exploitation, like Backpage, go largely unpunished.
There is no nationwide standard for post-recovery treatment, and many of these minors and young women struggle to put their lives back together after being arrested for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers.
Among other things, an arrest record can prevent these girls from finding housing or jobs, meaning they are unable to move on. These victims have survived the most unimaginable trauma, it is time we work to give them the peace and justice they deserve.
For this reason, FAIR Girls supports legislation like the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act (S. 104 and H.R. 459), which will provide post-conviction relief from criminal charges stemming from offenses committed as a direct result of being a victim of human trafficking, and will aid victims in shedding the vestiges of their trafficking and rebuilding their lives.
Shutting down the adult section of Backpage and holding its executives accountable won’t end all sex trafficking.
However, perhaps future websites will heed the lessons of Backpage and actually help sex trafficking victims rather than profit off of them.
And hopefully we will provide the support that those victims need, even after their traffickers are held responsible.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Andrea Powell.