Maine joins other states asking website to halt sex trafficking ads

Posted Sept. 01, 2011, at 5:27 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Attorney General William Schneider joined his counterparts in 45 other states on Thursday to request information about how a networking website intends to remove classified advertisements that reportedly promote sex trafficking.

Officials in several states have discovered listings on backpage.com, an online classifieds networking site similar to Craigslist, that advertise illegal services, in some cases involving minors.

In a letter submitted to lawyers representing backpage.com, the attorneys general said the site claims it has strict policies to prevent illegal activity, but that hasn’t stopped the ads from showing up.

Law enforcement officials allege that there have been 50 cases in 22 states over three years involving the trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors through the site, and those were only the ones that made news.

In May, a Dorchester, Mass., man was accused of forcing a 15-year-old girl into a Quincy motel to have sex with various men for $100 to $150 an hour. The customers were found after the man allegedly posted a photo of the girl on backpage.com.

In Benton County, Wash., prosecutors say teen girls report that they were threatened and extorted by two adults who marketed them on backpage.com. One of the adults rented a hotel room and forced the girls to have sex with men who answered the online ads.

“Children are being forced into prostitution and those traffickers are being given a tool to make this deplorable crime even easier.” Schneider said in a statement Thursday. “We urge backpage.com to stop child sex trafficking on the site by completely removing all adult service advertisements.”

Two weeks ago, 11 people were arrested in Maine in a prostitution sting allegedly involving backpage.com, although that case did not involve minors.

Attorneys general in 42 states reached an agreement with Craigslist in 2008 to crack down on illegal listings in an effort to reduce prostitution and trafficking of men, women and children.

Craigslist removed its “erotic services” section in May 2009 and shut down its adult services section in September 2010.

That same month, several attorneys general, including Maine’s, tried unsuccessfully to go after backpage.com as well.

The site is owned by Village Voice Media LLC, which also runs 13 alternative weekly newspapers throughout the United States and has admitted its involvement in advertising illegal services.

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.”

While backpage.com has ramped up its effort to screen some ads for minors, the attorneys general said the site “sets a minimal bar for content review in an effort to temper public condemnation, while ensuring that the revenue spigot provided by prostitution advertising remains intact.”

The letter submitted Thursday from state attorneys general makes a series of requests to backpage.com, asking that the company willingly provide information rather than be subpoenaed. They set a deadline of Sept. 14.

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