“Today, I am still fighting cybercrime and human exploitation — but as general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings, owner of Backpage.com.”
Thus spake Liz McDougall, chief legal counsel to Village Voice Media, in a guest editorial published in the Seattle Times.
Backpage.com, the nation’s largest and most profitable online advertiser of so-called “adult” personal advertising, is staggering from a constant body-blow pummeling from all sides of American life — legal challenges, appeals from social organizations, demonstrations by civic groups, petitions from, among others, 48 state attorneys general, and a glare of media attention that increases with each passing day.
Its response: it claims that, far from being a promoter of teenage prostitution, it is on the front lines fighting it.
This is but one of the increasingly bizarre defenses that Backpage.com employs. Past strategies included the now-notorious Tony Ortega “it’s really just not that big a thing” dismissal:
A small group of political activists is quite ready to provide the answer. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are being told that there’s a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: “trafficking.”
Then there was the equally hilarious “well, at least we’re keeping them off the streets and out of danger” argument, also from Ortega. Then we got the “we spend millions policing our site to prevent misuse.” Yes, and you earn tens of millions from that same “misuse.”
Now we have Ms. McDougall, who found herself no longer need at Craigslist, her former employer, when they dropped their adult personals precisely because of this kind of “misuse.” Both she and Craigslist’s pimps found a warm welcome at Backpage.com.
Ms. McDougall’s arguments are as shallow as they are facile. A sampling:
To stop human trafficking online, you have to fight it online. To fight it online, you have to be online. And you need allies online.
This a bit like the old “I’m going to work for change from the inside” copout, but with a new twist. Here, the argument seems to be that Backpage.com, by operating a schoolchild-sex trafficking website, is well-placed to keep an eye on these kinds of shenanigans. Well, we can’t dispute that. But:
What, so far, have you done? McDougall responds:
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.
(We have a couple of programs that look for words like “kid” and “Lolita” we paid a few bucks for, and they flag anything that screams “kids for hire.” Then we have two people, or “levels” who eyeball thousands of ads doing pretty much the same thing. That’s what we call “policing the website.”)
It also responds to law-enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less in almost all cases.
(When the cops call, we answer the phone, and we “respond” because we don’t want to go to the slammer. Usually we do this pretty quickly, but sometimes we need extra time to cover our asses.)
It uses its own technological tools to voluntarily collect and submit additional evidence to law enforcement from across the Internet.
(Frankly, even we have no idea what kind of fluff and garbage we send the cops here. It’s a great distraction though, and they just throw it out anyway.)
Finally, she offers us the “if we don’t do it, someone else will” excuse — with a conclusion that is as revolting as it is insulting:
Critics who instead call for Backpage.com to eliminate an “adult” category as the only solution to online trafficking miss the proven effect such measures have on online crime — they just drive it elsewhere. Specifically, shutting down cooperative U.S. online services drives criminal traffic to websites operating in the Internet underground and offshore (of which there are thousands).
There, traffickers and pimps can continue to advertise and sell their victims in the U.S., but the online-service providers are beyond care and frequently beyond legal jurisdiction to cooperate voluntarily or by mandate with U.S. law enforcement. The traffickers and their valuable online footprints become invisible again, and the victims remain lost on the Web and in the world — our world. It should be unthinkable.
It already is unthinkable, you toad! Do you really expect anyone to swallow this? Do you really mean to say that, by flogging these kids and their bodies all across the American web, you are somehow doing us all a favor? Making the world safer?
And now, Larkin and Lacey have announced their intention to take Backpage.com global. They seem to have heeded your advice, Ms. McDougall. As and when those determined to shut down this hideous business here in the US succeeded, will Backpage.com be poised to operate it in greater safety and security from beyond our borders?
Well, maybe not. After all, there are very few nations that have the same admirable and relaxed attitude towards free speech that we have here. It is an attitude most of us cherish and wish to preserve, even in the face of the costs that McDougall, Larkin, Lacey and all these rest of the ghastly crew at Backpage.com present. Backpage.com may find that even nations that wink at most other forms of crime and corruption may gag on the bitter brew that Backpage.com serves up. We’ll see.