Backpage.com v. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart

November 23, 2015 Cazzie Reyes Opinion 
News, Sex Trafficking

Back in 2009, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sued Craigslist, an online classified ads site, and charged that it knowingly promoted prostitution via its Erotic Services section. Dart wanted Craigslist to be held responsible for the sex ads posted on its site, but the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois ruled that Craigslist was not culpable for the illegal content posted by its users. Eventually, Craigslist renamed the Erotic Services section to Adult Services, but not even a year later, in September 2010, it shut down the Adult Services section. In 2015, Dart campaigned against another advertising site: Backpage.com.

Background

In late June 2015, Dart sent letters asking Visa and MasterCard to stop allowing their cards be used to pay for sex ads on Backpage.com. In July 2015, Visa and MasterCard joined American Express – which had decided in April 2015 to stop processing transactions on Backpage – and ceased dealing with Backpage. As a result, Backpage users who wanted to post ads were limited to paying by mailing cash, check or money orders or paying using electronic currency such as Bitcoin.

In response, Backpage filed a lawsuit against Dart. The company wanted U.S. District Judge John Tharp, Jr. to issue a restraining order that would prevent Dart from further contacting credit card companies while also asking for a preliminary injunction ordering Dart to rescind his statements and to pay for lost revenue and punitive damages. Later that month, Judge Tharp, Jr. issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Dart from lobbying credit card companies. In August 2015, Judge Tharp, Jr. denied the preliminary injunction request since some of the credit card companies were already beginning the process to disassociate with Backpage before Dart sent the letters.

In November 2015, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Dart to stop contacting credit card companies with regards to his campaign against sex ads on Backpage. In addition, he had to send a copy of the order to credit card companies and other parties that received or distributed his June 2015 letter.

Why Backpage?

Lawsuits related to Backpage’s sex ads are not new. Also in 2015, a group of teen sex trafficking victims filed an appeal after U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns dismissed their case alleging that the advertising platform’s design facilitates sex trafficking. The Cook County Sherriff’s Office has long held that Backpage is a means by which traffickers advertise trafficked adults and children. According to the Cook County Sheriff’s office, since 2009, they’ve made 800 arrests using information posted on the site. Of those, more than 50 were related to sex trafficking, involuntary servitude or prostitution promotion.

AIM group reports that Backpage is one of the biggest sex advertising sites in the U.S., accounting for about 70% of the sex ads posted in the country and earning $22 million from these ads in 2012. Because it makes up a considerable chunk of the online sex advertising market and because of cases linked to child sex trafficking, Backpage has been under scrutiny in the past few years. In fact, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was given a congressional subpoena to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs’ investigatory subcommittee.

The hearing, in part, was meant to address human trafficking and Backpage’s perceived role in enabling this crime. There are about 400 child sex trafficking cases in 47 states that are connected to sex ads posted on the site. Ferrer failed to appear, citing an international business trip, and Senators Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill are looking to pursue contempt proceedings. If approved, this could trigger a federal prosecution against Ferrer and Backpage.

Criticisms

Though many support Dart and applaud credit companies’ decision to stop transactions on Backpage, there are activists that say that targeting sex advertising sites hinders the fight against sex trafficking and increases risk for non-trafficked individuals. Backpage and – when it still operated its Adult Services section – Craiglist posit that their sites have proven useful for investigating and prosecuting sex trafficking-related crimes. Runaway and missing youth have been identified and recovered because of postings on the site, and law enforcement has used evidence from these sites (e.g., financial transactions) to trace traffickers and to strengthen cases against perpetrators. Online classified ads sites aren’t the only ones interested in keeping these adult sections running.

When the FBI shut down myRedBook.com in 2014, sex work advocacy groups noted that the action harmed those selling sex services rather than effectively reducing the demand side. Workers say that the site – which had a forum for reviews and discussion – enabled them to avoid bad customers. According to people in the sex industry, RedBook was unlike other sex advertising sites since it gave them the ability to pursue well-known and well-liked customers as well as connect with other escorts for client references and support.

Since the site shut down, sex workers say that they’ve had more difficulty vetting clients and advertising services. Some have moved on to use other sites, while others have migrated to social media platforms such as Twitter. Still, there are a number who’ve resorted to street prostitution.

Why it matters

The case with Backpage and Dart highlight three key developments in the sex industry as well as the human trafficking field in general:

1. Companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to issues related to human trafficking. Also observed in issues related to labor trafficking and supply chain transparency, businesses have realized that they can no longer stay out of these discussions and must respond accordingly or else risk damaging their reputation.

2. There’s a growing tension between activists who advocate for sex workers’ rights and those in anti-trafficking focused on demand reduction. Amnesty International’s proposal to decriminalize prostitution thrust these opposing views to light. Though the two sides want different outcomes in policy; ultimately, they are both against sex trafficking, which prompts the question of whether or not these activists can somehow work together towards a solution against forced prostitution.

3. Law enforcement and government officials have been more active participants in anti-trafficking, voicing concerns about legislation and the 2015 TIP Report as well as increasing police efforts against these crimes. Recognition of human trafficking as an important issue in the political arena is necessary and can lead to policy making; however, there’s still a balance to be made with all the motivations, interests and challenges involved.

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Topics: News, Sex Trafficking

About the Author



Cazzie Reyes

Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.