Since Shared Hope’s December 2011 release of the Protected Innocence Initiative, many states have had a torrent of new bills going out addressing the gaps in their laws which leave minors vulnerable to sex trafficking. As part of this initiative, Shared Hope evaluated the laws of each state in regards to their punishments for facilitators. Facilitators are those people or entities that knowingly enable domestic minor sex trafficking or benefit from sex trafficking in any way. While our analysis did not specifically focus on online facilitators, law enforcement and service providers have identified it as an increasing concern.
President and Founder of Shared Hope International, Congresswoman Linda Smith, explained in testimony before the Washington Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday, January 27th, it seems illogical to believe that these sites should escape accountability because they happen “in the cloud”. (Click here to listen to Congresswoman Smith’s testimony.)
Traditionally facilitators were thought of as a taxi cab driver or hotel employee assisting or turning a blind eye away from sex trafficking. However it is increasingly becoming apparent that there are many forms of facilitation of child sex trafficking. While a few states currently hold facilitators responsible by holding them to criminal or civil penalties, there are still barriers when it comes to online facilitators.
Backpage.com is an online classifieds site owned by Village Voice Media Group where many so-called “adult” ads are placed. Backpage.com has been identified by law enforcement and service providers as a hub for child sex trafficking. News outlets in states across the country have been reporting cases confirming Backpage.com is being used by traffickers to place ads offering minors for commercial sex. For example, in Florida, Leighton Curtis was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for bringing a 15-year-old girl into the state where he took sexually explicit photographs of her and advertised her for commercial sex on websites including Backpage.com. Another case involved Theodore Briggs of Connecticut who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sex trafficking a 14 and 17 year old. He used Backpage.com to advertise the girls for sex to buyers.
Backpage.com profits each time a minor is advertised for commercial sex on the site. An independent study by Advanced Interactive Media Group found that the adult section of Backpage.com is expected to earn Village Voice Media Group $24.8 million this year. While the act of profiting from child sex trafficking could lead to criminal charges for on-the-ground facilitators, Backpage.com has been left relatively unchanged throughout this process. Village Voice Media has claimed that their website is protected by the Communications Decency Act. They have been unwilling to close down this section of their website or even though they have been made well aware by law enforcement, policy officials and the victims themselves that domestic minor sex trafficking is happening there.
Shared Hope International is leading a national campaign inviting mayors across the nation to join our efforts to encourage Village Voice Media to stop facilitating child sex trafficking on Backpage.com. In addition, 51 state attorney generals, 53 anti-trafficking experts and organizations, and nearly 3,000 faith leaders of different denominations are publically calling on Backpage.com to shut this section down. We will not stop our efforts until children are no longer advertised online for sex.