< The Case Against Backpage.com

Transcript

Friday, November 04, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media, is a classified ad site, not unlike Craigslist. You can look for a job there, sell a car, find a vintage Quick Draw McGraw Lunchbox, almost anything, including flesh - escorts, body rubs, fetish services, the whole panoply of offerings under the heading of “Adult.”

Well, what about when the adults aren't. Episodes of Backpage.com ads involving minors have put the owners in a harsh spotlight. The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and part of Groundswell, a group of inter-denominational clergy who took out an ad in The New York Times last week asking Village Voice Media to shut down the adult section of Backpage.com.

Rev. Henderson says that just this week a pair of sex traffickers in Memphis were indicted on charges that they sold underage girls for sex.

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

We're talking about girls, teenage girls ages 15 and 16. And they thought they were going to a water park and instead were lured into a sex trafficking ring. This took place in Memphis. They were trafficked all the way to Houston. And they were sold through ads on Village Voice Media's Backpage.com adult section.

This is a tragic situation that's replicated many times over, and it's devastating to the lives of these girls.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, there have been rather frightening statistics bandied about concerning child prostitution in the United States. But they have been shown to be wildly exaggerated. Nonetheless, I gather that there isn't any threshold that you’re comfortable with, like, oh, only a thousand teen hookers, you know, that’s manageable.

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

Our position is that one child sold for sex on a classified ad site is too many. To have 51 states’ attorneys generals [sic] join together and be unified around this concern suggests that this is serious problem and something that we all need to be concerned about.

BOB GARFIELD:

Village Voice Media has invested what it says is millions of dollars in an attempt to detect child exploitation and to refuse to accommodate suspicious would-be advertisers. Now, Backpage.com is in your sights because it benefited from Craigslist shutting down its Adults Only ad section under pressure.

If Backpage.com were to close, then those ads would go somewhere else, you know, possibly someplace that makes no multi-million-dollar effort at due diligence.

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD:

In The New York Times this week, David Carr called that a whack-a-mole. You know, you pound the mole, it’s just gonna pop up –

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].

BOB GARFIELD:

- somewhere else.

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. When Craigslist

shut down its Adult Services section, it actually had a significant impact in decreasing the amount of child sex trafficking. And yes, Backpage benefited greatly from Craigslist being shut down,  making Backpage now the leading online site for adult service ads.

But we believe that if we can get Village Voice Media's Backpage.com to shut the section down that it will wipe out the majority of online sex trafficking of minors. And we feel that we have to try that. We have to push this point.

BOB GARFIELD:

But what happens when you succeed and the ads turn up somewhere else that is less scrupulous about who the advertisers are?

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

We are hoping really to create a cultural change where Americans are going to become aware of this as an issue right in their backyards, so that should there be a site that arises in the future, that public outcry would be sufficient to shut it down.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, so I want you humor me for a moment. I want you to stipulate for me that the possibility is that I'm right, that when you close Backpage.com down it will just move elsewhere.

In the meantime, you will have done serious damage to a very fine news organization that depends on this ad category for like 30 to 35 percent of its revenues. Now, I'm not equating a newspaper business with human life, but if you've gained nothing and kill the Village Voice in the process –

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

There are lives at stake here, and profit doesn't have a place when you're talking about the lives of children.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, Michael Lacey, who is the CEO of Village Voice Media, has framed this as a freedom of speech issue, as a matter of principle on his side. Isn't that – is it a question of the freedom of all advertisers to sell their wares?

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

I am not an attorney, but I know that the First Amendment doesn't extend to illegal sex trafficking, and Village Voice Media is providing a platform for the criminal activity of others. I think that's beyond free speech.

But we are here to address those as a moral issue. We believe that we have to protect the children in our midst and that they should not be subjected to sex trafficking, which is a devastating, traumatic experience from which often there's no return.

BOB GARFIELD:

Katharine, thank you very much.

REV. KATHARINE HENDERSON:

Bob, thank you for having me. Thanks for the opportunity.

BOB GARFIELD:

The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson is president of Auburn Theological Seminary.

We tried unsuccessfully to reach Village Voice Media executives Jim Larkin and Mike Lacey to get their side. A rep for Village Voice Media said they had no comment.