Mayors urge online escort service to check ages
Backpage.com under scrutiny by authorities, allegations that child prostitution facilitated by site
By Manuel Valdes
SEATTLE — Mayors of nearly 50 cities across the country are urging Village Voice Media to require identification for people posting escort ads on Backpage.com — its online ad service that has come under scrutiny from authorities for allegations that it's used to promote child prostitution.
"There is an urgent need to act quickly, as cities continue to find advertisements on your site that reflect underage sex trafficking," the letter by the United States Conference of Mayors said Monday. "We are making every effort to stop the ongoing trafficking of underage individuals, but these efforts are made more difficult by the inadequate safeguards of your website, Backpage.com, to prevent underage sex trafficking."
The leaders criticizing the ads include the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, and Laredo, Texas.
Backpage.com critics say the site is used to advertise underage prostitutes who are often victims of sex trafficking. The mayors join state attorney generals, clergy, anti-sex-trafficking groups and others that have put pressure on Village Voice Media, Backpage.com's parent company.
But in an op-ed published in The Seattle Times on Monday, Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall argued that sites like Backpage.com help law enforcement agencies by attracting traffickers who leave forensic footprints of their activities and can then be traced by law enforcement agencies.
"Backpage.com already employs a triple-tiered policing system that includes automated filtering and two levels of manual review of the adult and personal categories," she wrote. "It also responds to law-enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less in almost all cases. It uses its own technological tools to voluntarily collect and submit additional evidence to law enforcement from across the Internet. And it is ready to do more."
A message left on McDougall's cellphone was not immediately returned.
The mayors argued that placing an ad on Backapage.com is too easy for those exploiting underage people. They urged Village Voice to implement a policy where people placing an ad on Backpage.com show up in person to verify age.
Backpage.com has been the nation's leading source of online sex escort ads since Craigslist.org shuttered its adult services section in September 2010.
Shared Hope International has compiled a list of dozens of cases in 15 states in which girls were allegedly offered for sex on Backpage.com, most within the past year. The Seattle Police Department says it has linked 22 cases of child prostitution since 2010 to girls who were advertised as escorts on the website.
Washington state recently enacted a law that makes classified advertising company representatives who publish or cause publication of sex-related ads peddling children subject to criminal prosecution. Proof of a good-faith attempt to verify the age of the advertised person is considered a defense under the law.
Village Voice Media owns 13 alternative weekly newspapers around the country, including Seattle Weekly. Unlike Backpage.com, Seattle Weekly requires ID from those depicted in sex-related ads in its pages.
Associated Press writer Manuel Valdes can be reached at https://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes
Copyright 2012 Associated Press
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