America's top online brothel a critical tool for law enforcement
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"Natalie's" story is harrowing. After running away from home at the age of 15, she found herself sex trafficked.

Over the course of several months, her trafficker made thousands of dollars, while she was raped by hundreds of adult men.

Her trafficker wasn't the only one who financially benefited from her victimization. A third-party website, Backpage.com, was compensated for each and every advertisement for her sexual exploitation.

"Natalie" is now suing Backpage.com for facilitating her sex trafficking as a minor, and Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested for the same.

Across the country prosecutors, politicians and direct service providers were heralding these legal actions as victories in the war against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. However, the collateral consequences may do more harm than good.

For example, "Kim" is also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Backpage.com. Like Natalie, she was sex trafficked at the age of 15, after she attended a party hosted by a friend’s older boyfriend.

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She was told she couldn’t leave, and was forced to take racy photos to post on Backpage. Like "Natalie," "Kim's" sexual exploitation was facilitated by the advertisements her trafficker placed online, but so was her rescue. "Kim's" mother was alerted to the Backpage ad, which prompted her to reach out to law enforcement and eventually led to her daughter's rescue.

Similarly, on the 108th night "Natalie" was missing, her Backpage ad was targeted in a sting set up by the Seattle Vice Squad, which led to her rescue and a 26 year sentence for her trafficker.

This method of victim identification and recovery is not isolated to these cases. In fact, Backpage.com ads are regularly used by law enforcement and direct service providers as catalysts for investigation.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, "73 percent of the reports they receive from the general public about suspected underage trafficking involve a Backpage post.”

Although some anti-trafficking advocates may interpret this descriptive statistic to mean that Backpage is responsible for facilitating 73 percent of child sex trafficking, it may actually suggest that Backpage is a catalyst for the majority of tips to law enforcement.

Online erotic review and advertisement websites undoubtedly facilitate marketing of the commercial sex trade, and we would be remiss to not recognize the fact that they are also critical tools, which are used by the public and law enforcement across the country to identify and investigate sex trafficking.

Moreover, proposed legislation, like the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, is designed to create criminal penalties for businesses that knowingly advertise and market victims of sex trafficking.

While these laws are important and warranted, it is unreasonable to assume that Backpage.com employees or executives can readily distinguish between consenting sex workers from victims of sex trafficking, especially when trained law enforcement agents regularly conflate the two.

Wednesday, a California judge announced that he was likely to dismiss the criminal charges against the Backpage.com CEOs, ruling that the federal Communications Decency Act shielded the defendants from being prosecuted for content posted by third parties.

However, given that earlier this year the Senate voted 96-0 to hold Backpage in civil contempt, after failing to comply with a subpoena for documents explaining how it combats sex trafficking, these laws may be poised to change.

Preventing commercial sex advertisements from being posted on open-access online forums, and holding the websites criminally or civilly liable for third-party posts, may not reduce the incidence of juvenile sex trafficking; it may actually make these victims more difficult to identify.

Instead, legislators should focus on passing policy to strengthen communication, cooperation and data sharing between these businesses and law enforcement, so that we can better use these websites as tools for investigation and victim rescue. 

 

Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio. Follow her on Twitter @MehlmanOrozco


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