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Originally published Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 9:02 PM

Backpage letter claims it has taken steps to protect kids

Backpage.com, the online classified site affiliated with The Seattle Weekly, sent a letter last week to the nation's attorneys general outlining how it protects children from sexual exploitation. At the same time it was being drafted, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said Wednesday, the Seattle Police Department was busy helping rescue three female children advertised on the site.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes Tony Ortega, Village Voice Editor belittles opponents of Child Trafficking, Child... Read more
quotes And now, the fact the Times didn't bother to report: Without Backpage, those rescued... Read more

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Backpage.com, the online classified site affiliated with The Seattle Weekly, sent a letter last week to the nation's attorneys general outlining how it protects children from sexual exploitation.

At the same time it was being drafted, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said Wednesday, the city's Police Department was helping rescue three female children advertised on the site.

"This is unacceptable," McGinn said in a statement. "How many more children will be exploited for profit on Backpage.com before this company changes its policies?"

Few details were available, but McGinn said the girls were rescued last Thursday in SeaTac when Seattle's High Risk Victims Unit took part in a task-force operation.

A police spokesman confirmed the cases were handled with Tukwila police.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, meanwhile, said attorneys at his office and around the country were reviewing materials provided by Backpage.com.

"The letter says that Backpage.com is committed to combating child-sex trafficking," McKenna said. "But given the number of obviously illegal services advertised on Backpage.com, and the number of minors ensnared by traffickers using the site, we're quite interested in learning how Backpage.com supports that claim."

There was a definitive way to settle the issue, McKenna said. "The adult-services section should be shut down."

Last month, McKenna and 45 other attorneys general — since joined by five others — asked the company what steps it was taking to combat child prostitution.

Its website features adult escort ads across the U.S., but police have linked it to numerous cases of child-sex trafficking.

The company's response said it "understands and shares the concerns expressed by the attorneys general" and pledged to work with law enforcement to protect children. The company also said it had taken "bold measures to remove postings on our site that could in any way involve child trafficking."

The letter, signed by Samuel Fifer, a Chicago attorney representing Backpage.com, said the website had upgraded filters to ban several thousand terms from ads — many code words designed to circumvent standard filters.

The company also said it has a well-documented history of working with law enforcement to prevent underage prostitution.

It warned that any prosecution of Backpage.com would "infringe free-speech rights" since an attempt to shut down a "perfectly lawful website would silence vast amounts of constitutionally protected speech."

Jeff Hodson: 206-464-2109 or jhodson@seattletimes.com

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