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Sex Trafficking On Backpage.com: Much Ado About (Statistically) Nothing

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Editor’s note: Julie Ruvolo is a freelance writer and digital editor for the New York Museum of Sex. You can follow her on Twitter.

According to a growing list of religious groupsfeminists, celebrities and policy makers, adult classifieds website Backpage.com is profiting from one of the ugliest crimes on the planet: sex trafficking.

Backpage’s critics say they are facilitating sex slavery and should shut the site down. New York Times writer Nick Kristof pressured Goldman Sachs to unload its shares in Village Voice Media overnight (and at a $30 million loss) in March.

In July, Washington State introduced a legislative attack on CDA230 that aims to make websites like Backpage criminally responsible for third-party content posted by minors – a move that put the EFF on the offensive on behalf of the Internet Archive, Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman says, to make sure the legislation “doesn’t cross the line to the government throwing people in jail for what their users do.”

Backpage counters they are doing more to fight sexual exploitation than any other classified ad site on the web and have no plans to shut the site down.

To the contrary: In September, Backpage ditched all of its editorial properties, taking pressure off Village Voice Media’s brand advertisers and investors to distance themselves from the Backpage controversy, and leaving the beleaguered (but very profitable) classifieds site as a standalone ad platform run by Village Voice’s former CEO and Executive Editor.

All of which raises the question: How big of a problem is sex trafficking on Backpage.com, and what are they doing about it? Would the Internet be a better place without them?

The existing data is sparse. All the figures quoted in the media come from a single source, a consultancy called AIM Group:

Backpage accounts for about 70% of America’s prostitution advertising… earning more than $22 million annually from prostitution ads” – The New York Times
80% of [online prostitution advertising] revenue” – Reuters
VVM continues to get rich off of human suffering to the tune of $24 million a year” – The Daily Beast

But AIM Group’s methodology is shaky at best. They use Compete.com to estimate traffic stats for Backpage, which provides an obtuse estimation of site traffic. They ignore major adult ad networks and mainstream ad networks that accept adult ads in their calculation of share of the domestic adult classifieds market online. Their revenue calculations assume all ads for escort services and body rubs – services that are not illegal – are code for prostitution, another leap in logic.

And traffic, revenue and share-of-market numbers, even accurate ones, are no indication of how many adult ads on Backpage actually convert into a real-world transaction – nor what subset of those transactions are with a minor or someone otherwise coerced into a commercial sex act.

So I sat down with Liz McDougall, General Counsel for Village Voice Media, and asked her to disclose internal data about their adult ad business and the measures they’re taking to detect ads for victims of sex trafficking.

It’s much ado about (statistically) nothing.

Backpage publishes about 3.2 million classified ads a month in dozens of countries and hundreds of categories.

Of the 9 million ads live on the site on any given day, about 11 percent, or just under 1 million ads, are listed in the Adult Services Category, according to McDougall.

Backpage removes over a million ads a month from the site (1.1 million in August), but most of it is for spam and fraud, for which Backpage employs a team of 10 employees.

Only 1.6 percent of the ads they remove from the site in a given month are from the Adult Category – about 600 ads per day, or 18,000 per month (mostly for spam, fraud and nudity). For which Backpage employs a team of 110 employees.

Only 2 percent of that 1.6 percent, or about 400 ads a month, are suspected of advertising a minor. Backpage reports those ads immediately (and under no legal obligation) to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

In other words, about 1/25 of 1 percent (.04 percent) of the ads Backpage removes from its site on a monthly basis are suspected of advertising a minor for sexual services, a number that represents 1/00 of one percent (.01 percent) of its monthly ad volume.

So how do you find a needle in a haystack?

First, Backpage runs all classified ads submitted to the site through a keyword filter that scans for 26,000 different terms (not all sex-related – this is for spam and fraud, too), and matches the ad credentials against phone numbers, email and IP addresses of ad posters Backpage has already flagged. The filter also scans ads for links to viruses, malware and URLs that the NCMEC has blacklisted as being associated with child pornography. This part of the review process flags and rejects a little over 1 million ads per month.

All the ads submitted to the Adult and Dating categories (dating ads comprise only 0.2 percent of overall ad volume) pass through a second manual review process. A member of Backpage’s ad review team reviews each ad once before publishing, and a different member reviews the approved ads after they go live.

Their priority is to look for minors, according to McDougall; then, for violations of Backpage’s Terms of Use or other illegal activities, like “offers of sex for any kind of compensation (including suspected code words), sex acts in images, nudity, potential harm or violence.”

While prostitution is illegal in most of the country, a lot of sexual services, including the Adult Category’s top sub-categories – escorts, body rubs, ts (transsexuals) and dom & fetish – are not actually illegal. Neither are stripping, exotic dancing, nude modeling, telephone sex, webcams, and sensual massage, according to McDougall.

Finding out which body rub ads are for body rubs, for example, and which body rub ads are offers for sex is not an exact science. But it would be a mistake to assume, like AIM Group does, that all ads on Backpage’s Adult Category are for prostitution.

It would also be a mistake to assume that Backpage catches all the ads for minors advertised on the site, that the ads they flag for minors are actually for minors, or that there aren’t over-18 victims of sexual exploitation being advertised on the site.

That’s because the main criteria the ad review team uses to guess whether the advertiser is a minor is by looking at the photo attached to the ad and making a judgement call as to whether they appear over or under 21.

Here’s where things get messy. Really messy.

Eyeballing a photo and guessing the age of the person in it is a subjective process at best, and such an obtuse filter that McDougall goes so far to admit, “Sometimes we’ve had law enforcement complain to us after NCMEC sends them the report, saying, “Why did you send it to us? This person is clearly over age.”

Who posted the photo, how old the photo is, and whether the photo in the ad is actually of the person advertising adult services are complete unknowns.

Backpage’s Terms of Use don’t prohibit users from posting on another’s behalf, or using another’s credit card to post the ad, a glaring omission  given all the concern over pimps and traffickers advertising people for sexual services against their will.  Nor does Backpage maintain a database of previously flagged images to automatically detect duplicates.

Not to say that any of these measures could actually prohibit a minor from posting an ad in Backpage’s Adult Category, even if Backpage were to implement a third-party age verification solution.

McDougall says age verification “might help us identify the age of the pimp or the trafficker, but it’s not going to help identify the age of the victim. Even if the victim is being forced to do the posting, they’re typically using the credentials of the pimp or the trafficker who is over age.”

The anti-CDA230 legislation introduced in Washington State earlier this year would impose “an age verification obligation on anyone that publishes online prostitution ads… requiring documentary proof that the depicted model is an adult,” Internet Law professor Eric Goldman at Santa Clara University explains, a logistical impossibility in a country that has no national ID card and on an Internet that can’t actually tell who’s underage.

As Nicole Perlroth explains in The New York Times, “The methods the pornography industry uses to confirm online identities of its customers, like credit cards and drivers licenses, cannot be used to identify minors, because the absence of those things does not necessarily mean the person is a child.” Meaning there are indicators someone may be over 18, but there’s no sure-fire way to tell if someone posting online is a minor. More fuel to the fire for Backpage’s critics, who want Backpage to shut down all adult advertising.

But would the Internet be a better place without Backpage?

Backpage’s critics maintain that a lot of the ads – and sex traffickers – will just go away if Backpage shuts down. The New York Times’s Nick Kristof, quoting AIM Group data, asserts that “when Craigslist stopped taking such ads, online prostitution advertising plummeted by more than 50 percent.”

But exclusive data from Backpage reveals that was not the case in 2010 when Craigslist shut down Adult Services, at the time the largest adult classified marketplace on the Internet.

McDougall says after Craigslist shut down its adult category in September 2010, “adult, dating and other paid ad content on Backpage.com increased approximately 29%.” She adds that the volume of adult ads on Backpage started to climb steadily when Craigslist renamed its erotic ads category to Adult Services in 2009, implementing increasing posting requirements and restrictions.

“Without an objective baseline figure (i.e. the known, actual number of minors advertising) we cannot draw conclusions about how well Backpage is doing in screening out minors,” says Ron Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University specializing in American policies on prostitution and sex trafficking.

“[But] shutting down Backpage would mean that approximately 400 persons per month would not be identified as suspicious and would thus fall off the radar screen.”

McDougall, for her part, is adamant that shutting down adult ads on Backpage will push the adult ad business underground and offshore, “and we are going to lose those kids and we are going to lose prosecutions.”

Classified sites that move their operations overseas are under no obligation to cooperate with the NCMEC, and may take months to respond to subpoenas from U.S. law enforcement if they are obligated to respond at all. Backpage, on the other hand, responds to most of the three to five incoming subpoenas it receives per day within 24 hours, and often turns over data before receiving the official subpoena, circumventing privacy laws with an exigent circumstances clause in their Terms of Use.

Ten adult classified sites, including MyRedBook, TheEroticReview and Adult Search, are already using domain privacy registrars, which McDougall says makes them identifiable only via subpoena or court order. I’m stating the obvious here, but none of these sites employs a staff of more than 100 people to look for ads for minors.

It’s worth noting that the tech industry has come together to devise solutions for an equally ghastly crime – child pornography – that do not involve unplugging the Internet.

Microsoft donated a technology called PhotoDNA to the NCMEC that sites like Facebook use to scan through over 250 million photo uploads a day for child pornography. Google donated pattern-recognition software called Bedspread Detector to the NCMEC to help identify bedspreads in hotels that are used in child pornography.

But the technology doesn’t port to sex trafficking of minors. Nudity isn’t allowed on Backpage, and image detection and pattern recognition technology do not answer the question of whether a semi-clothed image is of a minor or adult who is being coerced into a commercial sex act.

And the same tech giants are unwilling to engage with Backpage – publicly, at least. Microsoft refused to comment on conversations it’s held with Backpage or on the recent anti-CDA230 legislation in its home state. Google is busy funding anti-Backpage NGOs.

Here’s the kicker: Even if we assumed that every single ad Backpage sends to the NCMEC is actually for a victim of sexual exploitation, and if we multiplied that number by 25 to account for all the victims of sex trafficking they might be missing, that would still leave 99 percent of Backpage’s adult ads posted by, presumably, consenting adults.

Which means that Backpage’s critics and Backpage alike are ignoring the proverbial 99 percent of its users – prostitutes, strippers, dom and fetish experts and transsexuals who advertise on sites like Backpage.

Backpage’s top market for adult ads is New York City, so I asked Kate D’Adamo with the Sex Workers Outreach Project volunteer organization in New York City what she thought of Backpage’s efforts:

The hardest part about looking for visible signs of a trafficked person is that there are no obvious signs. If they were that easy to spot, it wouldn’t take long before every trafficker would stop using [sites like Backpage].

But the most troubling part is that, especially among youth, we don’t need to look for tattoos or background details. Sixty-eight percent of street-based youth engaged in the sex trade in New York City have already sought the assistance of youth service organizations, most more than once.

New York City funds roughly 200 beds for a population of 4,000 unaccompanied, homeless youth. When all the beds are full, it is street economies like the sex trade which they turn to in order to provide basic needs. If we want to identify the most vulnerable, all we have to do is provide support when someone stands up and says “I need a place to sleep tonight.”

Turns out some of the best solutions just might be analog.