State targets adult ads on website

Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 11:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has joined her colleagues from 20 other states in urging backpage.com, a website offering a wide array of services and products for sale, to shut down its adult services section, which they charge is being used to advertise prostitution services in Maine and other states.

“This is happening in Maine and across the country,” Mills said in an interview. She said the letter sent by her and the other attorneys general to the legal firm that represents the website spelled out that it is failing to adequately screen the ads on the site.

“We believe that ads for prostitution, including ads trafficking children, are rampant on the site and that the volume of these ads will grow in light of Craigslist’s recent decision to eliminate the adult services section of its site,” the AGs wrote.

Mills had joined the effort last month along with several state attorneys general to get Craigslist to remove its adult services website, which the site did after extensive media coverage of the request. She said Backpage is a similar site and is very popular.

“I have no doubt it is used in Maine,” she said. “You can see it on their website.”

The Backpage website Tuesday had a dozen pages of ads for “escort services” in Maine, mostly for women but a few for men. They ranged from “your dream girl” in Portland to “magic Johnny” in Bangor. Several ads listed ages of 18 or 19 and Mills says that is often “code” for younger teens.

“Craigslist did the right thing and took down their adult services section and Backpage should do the same,” Mills said.

But in a posting on its website Tuesday afternoon, Backpage rejected the AG’s request, insisting they are following the law and branding the request a form of censorship.

“Backpage.com respectfully declines the recent demand by a group of 21 state attorneys general that it close its adult classifieds website,” the company said in its posting. “Backpage.com is a legal business and operates its website in accordance with all applicable laws. Censorship will not create public safety nor will it rid the world of exploitation.”

Backpage wrote that in the past two years, there have been 6 million ads posted in the adult section of the website, but there have only been five cases where federal or state authorities have asked them to testify involving alleged abuse of underage persons.

Mills said she found the letters that have appeared in national newspapers from women who say they were exploited by the adult sections of websites very moving, and spurred the attorneys general to take action. She said the letters spell out how websites are not screening ads properly and how that has lead to exploitation of kids.

“In some states it could be considered abetting prostitution,” she said. Mills said website operators successfully lobbied Congress a few years ago to get an exemption from federal law, but the states may be able to prosecute under state laws.

“There are kids, children that have been enslaved into the sex trade as a result of these websites,” she said. “We are not talking about consenting adults; we are talking about exploiting children.”

Mills said the federal government should look at what laws could be used to prevent websites from listing what amounts to ads for prostitution. She said if Congress needs to change existing laws, or enact new ones, they should.

Mills said she would also support any coordinated effort by state prosecutors to use various state laws to address the problem. She expects there will be further coordinated actions by attorneys general from across the country to address the issue.

“If it saves one child’s life, one child’s safety, one child’s sanity,” Mills said. “If so, it is worth doing.”

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