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Originally published Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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Backpage.com is an ally in the fight against human trafficking

The online classifieds service, Backpage.com, is a critical ally in stopping human trafficking online; shutting its closely-monitored "adult" category would simply drive the trafficking underground, writes Liz McDougall, general counsel of Village Voice Media Holdings.

Special to The Times

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TO stop human trafficking online, you have to fight it online. To fight it online, you have to be online. And you need allies online.

Weeks ago, I was a lawyer litigating high-profile Internet and cybercrime cases, and providing pro bono services to help victims of abuse, exploitation and civil-rights violations, including human trafficking. Today, I am still fighting cybercrime and human exploitation — but as general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings, owner of Backpage.com.

Backpage.com is an online classifieds service. It includes a category of "adult" advertising that has been the recent target of accusations that it facilitates human trafficking.

Why did I make this move?

Because human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of children, is a social atrocity. Because I have children. Because I want human trafficking to stop. Because I believe Backpage.com is a critical ally to make it stop.

Human trafficking has existed throughout human history. But, until recently, it dwelled underground, largely unrecognized within U.S. borders. Now, the same Internet that allows us to chat with friends and instantly research any subject has brought this abomination out of the shadows. Traffickers have seized on this technology in hopes of increasing their payoffs — despite the heightened risk of detection and prosecution.

Village Voice Media management tracked me down to talk about leading its fight against online trafficking. I listened, investigated, researched and made inquiries; I weighed my principles, priorities, knowledge and experience fighting crimes online; and I joined.

I didn't leave a successful law partnership to sit on my hands and verbally defend a company accused of making money on illegal activity. I chose to work with Village Voice Media because of its active engagement to fight human trafficking and the opportunity to help it and the online industry do more.

When traffickers use the Internet, especially in a financial transaction, they leave forensic footprints that create unprecedented tools to locate and rescue victims before they are exploited, and to investigate and convict pimps and their criminal networks. A key to disrupting and eventually ending human trafficking via the World Wide Web is therefore an online-service-provider community — of businesses including Backpage — that aggressively monitors for and traces potential trafficking cases, and promptly reports to and cooperates with law enforcement.

Backpage.com already employs a triple-tiered policing system that includes automated filtering and two levels of manual review of the adult and personal categories. It also responds to law-enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less in almost all cases. It uses its own technological tools to voluntarily collect and submit additional evidence to law enforcement from across the Internet. And it is ready to do more.

Critics who instead call for Backpage.com to eliminate an "adult" category as the only solution to online trafficking miss the proven effect such measures have on online crime — they just drive it elsewhere. Specifically, shutting down cooperative U.S. online services drives criminal traffic to websites operating in the Internet underground and offshore (of which there are thousands).

There, traffickers and pimps can continue to advertise and sell their victims in the U.S., but the online-service providers are beyond care and frequently beyond legal jurisdiction to cooperate voluntarily or by mandate with U.S. law enforcement. The traffickers and their valuable online footprints become invisible again, and the victims remain lost on the Web and in the world — our world. It should be unthinkable.

Backpage.com and Village Voice Media of course hear the outcry of protesters and feel the pressure of politicians. I hear and feel them. We all agree we need to do more to fight human trafficking. But symbolic demands are no substitute for pragmatic crime-fighting tactics.

I believe Village Voice Media is committed to fighting human trafficking online intelligently and practically until it is stopped. So when they asked me to lead this fight, how could I say no?

Liz McDougall is general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC, which is based in Phoenix. McDougall is based in Seattle.

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