On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in a beautician’s chair as news blared from a radio. A passenger plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Shortly after the first plane hit, patrons in the salon began theorizing about the cause. Plane malfunction? Pilot error? Not one suggested terrorist attack.
Because terrorism didn’t happen in America.
Within minutes, we watched in horror as a second plane plunged into the Twin Towers. In less than two hours, a wake-up call had come to the United States. Mass-scale terrorism had reached our shores. And we’d soon learn it had been alive and well long before 9/11, working its evil plans right under our noses.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Today another reality is hidden in plain view: human trafficking. While sound numbers of who, how many, and where are difficult to find, the carnage of this evil is leaking out of the shadows and into the headlines. Victims are filling safehouse beds. Many more are on waiting lists. Those caring for victims have been listening to stories for years and have started to spot trends.
Unlike an ounce of cocaine or an illegal weapon, a child can be sold repeatedly. Every. Single. Night. Most children enslaved in human trafficking, if not rescued, will die within seven years.
The Internet makes it easy for johns to order up a child as easily as a pizza.
Many assume sex trafficking is restricted to the darkest corners of the Internet. The online classified ad company “Backpage,” however, has become the Walmart of sex trafficking and prostitution. For a modest fee, traffickers can post sex ads of women and children they control with force or fraud.
What You Should Know About Backpage.com
As believers called to proclaim God’s blessings to the captive, here are nine things you need to know about Backpage.com.
1. Backpage is the world’s largest classified ad company, with sites in 431 U.S. cities and another 444 worldwide. According to Dawn Hawkins, executive director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Backpage posts one million sex ads a day.
Let that sink in.
2. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) told a recent Senate subcommittee that 71 percent of all suspected child sex trafficking cases have a link to Backpage. According to the Justice Department, more than half of known victims in the U.S. are younger than 17. Some are as young as 7.
3. Backpage is a profoundly lucrative sex-ad business. In 2010, after Craigslist ended their adult ad section in response to public pressure, Backpage’s adult ads and subsequent profit margins began to soar. As of 2014, Backpage had an EBITDA margin (measure of profitability) of 82 percent, compared with a 9.3 percent average for similar online service companies.
4. Backpage has been accused by several advocacy groups—including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), Shared Hope, and Polaris—of actively assisting pimps by editing ads to avoid detection from law enforcement while increasing their customer base.
5. On March 17, the Senate held Backpage in contempt for refusing to comply with their subpoena. Two other Backpage employees pled the fifth.
6. Backpage has prevailed in state courts repeatedly on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act protects them from prosecution for the criminal wrongdoing of their customers. Denying they are co-conspirators, Backpage maintains they merely provide a forum for free speech in the form of advertising. In December, Backpage sued the Department of Justice to prevent the enforcement of a new anti-trafficking law.
7. Backpage is the go-to site for law enforcement investigating sex trafficking. As law enforcement has often testified, though, Backpage frequently removes ads posted in connection with sting operations. Further, Backpage has encouraged their customers to use anonymous payment methods, making it virtually impossible to trace to traffickers.
8. Backpage often refuses to remove ads identified as “sex trafficking” by parents and the NCMEC. Parents who have identified their children in Backpage ads and requested the agency remove them are often greeted with an automated response stating ads won’t be removed until multiple users request a specific ad be removed multiple times.
9. Last year, American Express, MasterCard and Visa all stopped processing Backpage payments, fearing the possibility of illegal transactions after Chicago Sheriff Thomas Dart wrote a letter requesting the companies remove the use of their cards on Backpage. Although Backpage successfully took the Sheriff to court, claiming he “threatened” the credit card companies, none have opted back in.
No Reason to Compromise
Many believe an easily accessible, public Backpage assists law enforcement in catching traffickers. In reality, though, Backpage enables law enforcement to rescue only a handful of victims compared to the thousands they place on a public auction block each day.
Some have argued for keeping Backpage adult ads in place, since if they close traffickers will “just go someplace else harder to find.” While that may happen, it doesn’t release us from the responsibility to speak and act against criminal wrongdoing.
Christ is not honored by compromise. When popular culture said teens will have sex anyway, so it’s better to give them condoms and “safe places” to have sex, believers challenged this faulty thinking, launched studies demonstrating the contrary, and led innovative programs to lower teen pregnancy and advance the gospel. Opposition to evil is a Christian duty.
Clear Danger Trumps Free Speech
Backpage says the issue is free speech, pointing to a small statement in the Communications Decency Act. Though free speech is a cherished basic right, it is not always ultimate. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes has observed, free speech has limits when it presents a “clear and present danger.”
Consider the clear and present danger for a young girl whose own missing child photo is used by her trafficker in a Backpage ad offering her for sex. “That poster had the child’s real name on it, real age, real picture, and date she went missing,” Senator Portman said on the Senate floor. “The other pictures in the ad included topless photos.”
Can you imagine her parents upon seeing that ad?
It’s time to hold Backpage accountable for its crimes, and to give voice to the rights of thousands of vulnerable children forced to give their bodies to strangers each day to pad both the pockets of traffickers and Backpage.com.