Underage sex for sale
WASHINGTON (ABC7) —
It's estimated that 5.5 million children are trafficked around the world every year.
Here in the US, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 73% of all children trafficked in prostitution are bought and sold on a site called Backpage.com.
Backpage is an online marketplace that trades in everything from lawnmowers and couches to prostitution. And, to the dismay of many in child advocacy, it does so under the protection of a little known federal law.
“Children are never prostitutes,” said child advocate Esther Nelson. “They're sex abuse victims. They're not selling themselves, they're being sold. Buyers aren't having a date, they're raping a child.”
Nelson, who was once herself trafficked, has spent the last 13 years advocating for victims of sexual exploitation.
On the day we meet, she is in a small room at a local police station, counseling a 16-year-old victim. Just hours earlier, the girl was pulled out during a sting operation after her posting on Backpage led police to the hotel from which she was working.
“This is the part that people really have a hard time wrapping their brain around,” I say to Nelson, “that there's a demand to have sex with children.”
“Well,” she says, “the demand is for vulnerability so whatever factor displays vulnerability, there's a demand for that.
According to a new Congressional report, that demand is being fueled by Backpage.
Carol Robles-Roman heads Legal Momentum, an advocacy group suing to shut down the section of the online bulletin board where children are sold for sex.
Robles-Roman says Backpage uses an exploitive business model that pulls in millions.
“There should not be a vehicle that has made the trafficking of kids so easy, like ‘hey, do you want to order a pizza, sure, let's do that.’ ‘Hey do you want to order a kid?’ Just as easy."
In January, after obtaining more than a million pages of internal Backpage documents, the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded that Backpage knowingly "facilitated illegal activity - including child sex trafficking" and that they "concealed evidence of criminality."
“These are kids. These are young kids, said Robles-Roman.” “These are minors and there's no justification - there's no way to defend it.”
But Backpage and others haven't really needed to.
That's because tucked into the Communications Decency Act is a provision known as "Section 230" that shields Internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Backpage from liability over objectionable content posted by users.
She says Section 230 is one of the cornerstones of free speech online.
“If I were, for some reason, to tweet something defamatory about you, you could of course sue me for saying something defamatory, but you couldn’t sue Twitter for having published that defamation worldwide, and that’s a really, really key protection. If companies were vulnerable to lawsuits over the content of the speech that their users are posting every day, they would very quickly basically be sued out of existence,” said Llanso.
Twitter was sued in 2016, for allegedly providing material support for Islamic extremists who killed two American contractors. But the case was dismissed using protections in Section 230.
According to the Congressional report, Backpage tried to appear as though it was fighting trafficking by editing-out code words for minors like “fresh” and “new to town” - to make the ads look quote “cleaner than ever.”
But Congressional investigators found Backpage was actively allowing the traffickers to operate, and pocketing the ad revenue.
“By fixing the ad, you don’t cure the criminality, right?” said Robles-Roman. “There’s still a kid that’s being listed online.”
The Senate subcommittee concluded that there was no question that Backpage was not only aware its users were trafficking children, but that it actually facilitated them in doing so.
“I would hope that a court would, regardless of the particular facts of the Backpage case, understand that the decision that they're making in that case will have ramifications across the Internet ecosystem," said Llanso.
Civil liberties and free speech advocates say if Robles-Roman was to win her case, there would be significant implications on free speech.
“Yeah,” says Robles-Roman. “There would be implications on free speech. You cannot sell children online for sex. That's the implication. You cannot rape children online. That's the implication.”
Others have taken-on Backpage in the courts and lost. But Robles-Roman says the Congressional report is a game-changer that indicts Backpage with its own documents showing that it is not a passive, neutral business - but engaged in criminal behavior.
There's also a bill working its way through Congress that would amend the broadest protections of Section 230 to hold publishers accountable for child trafficking.
We requested an interview with Backpage. They declined.