Recruitment Goes Social
Social Media And Crossover Publications From Major Media Companies Are Among The Tools Which Profiteers Of Sex Trafficking Use To Lure Their Victims
Jessi Knight, volunteer for a prostitution outreach program at the Phoenix Dream Center called The Rescue Project.
By Chris Braswell
Modern Times Magazine
Part Two of a Two Part Series
May 6, 2014 — Social media has changed the face of communication, and sex traffickers have used it to complement their recruitment techniques.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office Outreach Division has Internet Safety and Substance Abuse programs, supported by a grant from the Arizona Governor’s Office. The AG Office’s Outreach Division had an audience with about 60,000 children last year regarding internet safety.
“The technology of the phones and the computers and everything, where it's a gift because you can get instant answers, is also a curse because we can’t track all the places our kids go,” said Kathleen Winn, Outreach Director for the Arizona Attorney Generals Office and liaison for Phoenix’s sex trafficking task force. “I'm not talking GPS-wise, I'm talking about online we can't control who reaches our children.”
Social media is a very big vulnerability, as it provides an egress for pimps into the lives of their victims, and a way for them to monitor their victims, according to task force member Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a faculty member at ASU’s School of Social Work.
Social media can be used in a positive way, however. For example, the Phoenix Dream Center, a task force affiliate, has had women come in off the streets through Facebook, its Executive Director Brian Steele said.
“We even try to break up Internet businesses, there are a lot of different applications. We are looking for ways. For example Backpage.com, the owners are here, they live here in Arizona, they used to own the New Times, and they sold the New Times off and kept Backpage, and they make millions of dollars a year on their adult services ads,” Winn said. “All of their ads are not sex trafficking ads, but we know that some of them are, and enough of them are that we are constantly watching lawsuits around the country that people bring, to see if there is an application in Arizona.”
Sex Trafficking and Backpage.com
Two years ago, in July of 2012, a civil case was filed at Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Wash., on behalf of the guardians of three female minors, two seventh graders and a ninth grader.
“We filed these against Backpage.com and the pimps — or at least some of the pimps — essentially alleging that these kids were trafficked on Backpage.com,” said Erik Bauer, a Tacoma-based attorney involved with litigation against sex trafficking.
The girls had been rescued by police. The criminal prosecution of the pimps, male Baruti Hopson and female Shadina Rice, began at the state-level in Washington but ended up being escalated by Backpage’s defense attorneys to the U.S. Western District Court of Washington at Tacoma, Bauer said.
The plaintiffs argued that it should be a state case, and the federal court agreed and remanded the case back to the Pierce County court. From that point, representatives for Backpage.com filed a motion to dismiss, citing Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, and asked the court to dismiss the case for frivolity.
Backpage’s defense team, led by attorney Elizabeth McDougall, has appealed to Pierce County Superior Court and Washington State Court of Appeals Division II, and the litigants are in the process of briefing that case at this time.
Historically, Backpage has won similar claims where state legislators have passed laws that would have prevented Backpage.com from continuing to, essentially, facilitate sex trafficking, Bauer said.
For example, a federal magistrate judge dismissed a case (M.A. v. Village Voice Media, LLC) in Missouri that stemmed from a child being trafficked at Backpage.com, after the organization’s legal defense sought relief under the Communications Decency Act.
Reasonably enough, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects online content carriers from incurring liability of third-party content over which the carrier has does not necessarily have direct or real-time control.
“The problem with the Communications Decency Act is not the act itself,” Bauer said. “Rather, the trouble comes with its misinterpretation. The rule is intended to protect big companies like Facebook, AOL, and Amazon when they get sued over third party content that is committed by their clients. For example, if someone is slandered on Facebook, the slanderer is legally responsible, not Facebook. Such is the protection that is intended to be provided through the rule; and the intent of the Communications Decency Act is not meant to open a blind alley for prostitution and child sex trafficking.”
Another CDA-related case was Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com LLC, which was decided in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2008. The ruling upheld that Roommates.com was not immune under Section 230 regarding an applicant questionnaire on its website, but did qualify for Section 230 protection with respect to user-posted content in the “Additional Comments” section of the site.
And another example case is Thomas Dart, Sheriff of Cook County v. Craigslist, Inc., (2009) filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, in which Dart asked for injunctive relief from prostitution advertisements on the online classified advertising website, Craig’s List. Dart lost the case, however Craig’s List got out of the business soon thereafter, Bauer said.
“Craig’s List was in the game for quite a while,” he noted.
Bauer predicted that Backpage’s future is foggy at best.
“There are some weird legal decisions in our country, and so far they have enabled Backpage to exist and even thrive,” said Bauer. “Blatant prostitution advertising is what they are, and Backpage takes a fee. I actually believe that Backpage’s days are numbered.”
Historically, prostitution typically was facilitated through brothels. Eventually, as rules were made against brothels, their inhabitants were scattered — into the streets, for example. Bauer noted that most of the victims of the Green River Killer in the early 1980s, for example, were prostitutes or young runaways who hitchhiked or worked in a declining area of Washington State’s Highway 99.
Bauer said his firm’s goal is mass tort class action litigation for the purposes of causing widespread interruption of apparently rampant Internet-based sex trafficking.
“We want them in one lawsuit in a frame that cannot be ignored,” he said. “The right flank of Backpage.com is exposed now. We have a legal theory that works and they don’t.”
Put in the simplest of terms, Bauer said Backpage serves as a marketing firm for sex traffickers.
“Most of them are pimps,” Bauer said. “They’re clever, they’re smart, they’re competent people, who are teaching street people to sell people. Backpage helps pimps do their job less obviously, and the courts have been hostile to cases like ours. And you don't want a defeat while you're moving up the appellate ladder.”
For more helpful information visit Sex Trafficking Safety Tips For Parents
In defining third-party content, the language of the Communications Decency Act stipulates that an online host may not have any hand whatsoever in developing ads, or, “anything they do that helps their corporate process along,” Bauer said.
But Backpage’s advertising rules take special care and attention for its adult entertainment clients, he said. Ad clients in its adult entertainment section must pay to advertise, however it is free to advertise among all other of Backpage’s departments, Bauer said.
Furthermore, Bauer said there is evidence that Backpage assists its adult entertainment advertising clients with advice about how to ostensibly solicit for prostitution without explicitly stating such an intent, which is tantamount to law enforcement evasion and evidence suppression, and does in fact violate the federal rule.
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