46 state attorneys general (latest: Zoeller of Indiana) have challenged Backpage.com, a website owned by the Village Voice that lists personal ads. The challenge has been in response to the site's failure to prevent ads for prostitution, and sex trafficking, including that of minors. There have been 50 suits in 22 states for the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through the website.
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller joined 45 other state attorneys general recently in challengingBackpage.com for its ongoing failure to effectively limit prostitution and sexual trafficking activity on its website.
In a joint letter to the website's lawyers, the attorneys general said hundreds of advertisements have been discovered that solicit illegal services despite the website's claims of having strict content policies in place.
"The Internet has become a haven for prostitution advertisements," Zoeller said. "These advertisements are often a cover for the terrible crime of trafficking minors and others. Attorneys general want to make sure online sites like this do not become hubs for human trafficking and other illegal activity."
However, since 2008 more than 50 cases in 22 states involved the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through Backpage.com.
"The only way for Backpage.com to completely stop trafficking on its site is to take down all adult services advertisements," Zoeller said. "Children aren't legally capable to consent to be sold for sex and every effort must be made to combat this crime and protect our children."
According to the letter, prosecutors in Washington state are handling a case in which teen girls say they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on Backpage.com. One of the adults rented a hotel room and allegedly forced the girls to have sex with men who answered the online advertisements.
Backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, LLC, is the top provider of "adult services" advertisements, according to the AIM Group, an interactive-media consultancy. The multimedia company, which owns 13 weekly newspapers in the U.S. including Indianapolis' NUVO magazine, admits its involvement in advertising illegal services.
In a meeting with staff at the Washington State Attorney General's Office, Village Voice board member Don Moon readily acknowledged prostitution advertisements appear on the website. In a June 29 article published nationally by the Village Voice, the corporation criticized those concerned about child sex trafficking as "prohibitionists bent on ending the world's oldest profession," acknowledging that, as a seller of adults services advertisements, "Village Voice has a stake in this story."
Industry analysts suggest that Village Voice's stake in adult services advertisements is worth about $22.7 million in annual revenue.
Zoeller said the letter from state attorneys general makes a series of requests to Backpage.com, asking that the company willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena. For example, in order to substantiate the claim that the company enforces policies to prevent illegal activity, the attorneys general ask that Backpage.com describe in detail its understanding of what constitutes "illegal activity," and whether advertisements for prostitution fall into that category.
Attorneys general also ask how many advertisements in the website's adult section and subsections have been submitted since Sept. 1, 2010, how many of those advertisements were individually screened, how many were rejected and how many were removed after being discovered to be for illegal services.
In 2008, Indiana and 41 other states' attorneys general reached an agreement with Craigslist to crack down on illegal listings, in an effort to reduce crimes such as human trafficking. Craigslist ultimately removed its "erotic services" section in May 2009.
Through the National Association of Attorneys General, Zoeller is part of the "Pillars of Hope" Presidential Initiative to combat human trafficking. Zoeller is also a member of the Indiana Protection of Abused and Trafficked Humans Task Force.