Craigslist and Backpage: The Websites Used for Sex Trafficking

Kirsten Hydel Talks About the Best Practices for Providing Services to Victims and Survivors of Sex Trafficking | September 16, 2014 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Winner of the Fall 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Human Rights”

Have you ever wanted to make some easy money by selling your old stuff? Thanks to websites like Craigslist and Backpage, you can. Both Craigslist and Backpage are two of the largest classified advertisement websites. They allow you to search for and sell items in and around your local area. They even give you the option to post advertisements for job listings, events and activities. Craigslist was founded in 1995, and Backpage was founded in 2004.1 Craigslist is owned by its founder Craig Alexander Newmark, and Backpage was formerly owned by Village Voice Media and was run by its former CEO Carl Ferrer. Backpage is now owned by a Dutch company called Atlantische Bedrijven CV.2 These websites may seem like a harmless way to look for products and services, but the truth is these websites had a personal ad section that made it easy for young girls and women to be sexually exploited.

Craigslist Office | Courtesy of Creative Commons

The personal ad section on these websites allowed for people to meet men and women in their area. Typically, these ads were used to find someone to date or with whom to have casual sex. Although these personal ad sections were intended for people to connect and interact with other persons, they were misused. These ads turned into the perfect platform for pimps and traffickers to promote the sale of women and children for sex. As shocking as it sounds, research has shown that the internet is a common tool for sex traffickers to use. Using the internet allows traffickers to reach a larger number of potential clients while eluding law enforcement.3 For them, the internet is the safest way to make money. The service providers Craigslist and Backpage, however, did nothing to stop people from using their websites in this way. Instead of preventing the ads from being posted or taking them down, they published them.

Several people filed lawsuits against Craigslist and Backpage because they wanted these websites to be held liable for publishing sex ads.4 After being faced with backlash, Craigslist and Backpage agreed to implement some requirements for their advertisements. In 2008, Craigslist required a fee for those persons posting in the “adult services” part of their personal ad section. The fee ranged between 5-10 U.S. dollars per ad. People would need to use a valid credit card and provide a verifiable phone number. This requirement, however, did not have much of an impact. Many traffickers simply used fake credit cards and phone numbers to pay the fee.5 Through these fees, Craigslist and Backpage made a huge profit. Craigslist made $44.6 million from their adult services advertisements and Backpage made $24 million.6 Their adult section, however, was the only one with a fee attached. To get around the fee, people would simply post their sex ads in other sections. Another attempt made by Craigslist and Backpage to reduce the chances of sex trafficking was removing posts with words such as “sexy” and “young.” This also proved to be ineffective. People would use code words so that their ads would not be removed. For example, pimps and traffickers used words like ‘new’ to indicate that the girl was a minor. Backpage even helped to edit advertisements by changing the words so that they would not get flagged or reported.7 The websites changes were not effective in reducing the number of sex ads posted. Craigslist and Backpage still failed to consistently block ads for illegal activity such as sex trafficking.

Former U.S. Representative, Katherine Harris, Speaks at the End Sex Trafficking News Conference in 2005 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many women and children were trafficked through these websites. In one case, three young women were repeatedly raped while they were minors when they were sold through Backpage’s website. Each of these victims filed a lawsuit against Backpage back in October 2014. This case is known as Doe v. Backpage.com. The lawsuit claimed that the classified ad company had engaged in sex trafficking of minors. They argued that the websites were engaged in trafficking since they did such a poor job in governing the content of the ads being posted. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First District ruled in favor of Backpage and held that Backpage was protected under U.S. Code Title 7 Section 230, more commonly known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). 8

] The purpose of the CDA is to regulate interactive computer services. The CDA makes it the policy of the United States “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services” and “to ensure vigorous enforcement of Federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking in obscenity, stalking, and harassment by means of computer.”9

In their decision, the Court of Appeals argued that by claiming that Backpage facilitates sex trafficking through its posting rules, you are treating Backpage as the publisher of the content which the CDA prohibits. Section 230 subsection (c) states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”10 The Court believed that Backpage should not be held responsible for what its customers convey on its website. Just a year prior to this case, another lawsuit was brought against Backpage. This case was Backpage.com, LLC v. Cooper. In this case, just like in Doe v. Backpage.com, Backpage argued that they had no knowledge of the content posted on their website. The Court ruled that their classified ads were protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. They argued that it is unlawful to censor an entire category of speech on a website. They also stated that it would place “an impossible burden” on Backpage to review the millions of ads posted on its website.11

Just like Backpage, Craigslist was faced with numerous lawsuits. Those who brought lawsuits against Craigslist wanted them to be liable and accountable for allowing such advertisements to be published on their website.12 Many advocates fought hard against these two companies. They wanted the sex advertisements on these websites to be criminalized, and to put an end to the use of online classified ads to exploit both adults and children.

 

President of the United States, President Trump, Signs McCaul’s Bill to Combat Human Trafficking into Law 2/16/2018 | Courtesy of Google Images

The most recent legislation dealing with online sex trafficking was introduced by the Senate. Earlier this year, it was passed by Congress. This piece of legislation is an anti-sex-trafficking bill known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. This act is an exception to Section 230 of the CDA. This Act states, “section 230 was never intended to provide legal protection to websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims; and that clarification of section 230 is warranted to ensure that that section does not provide such protection to such websites.13 Essentially, this Act allows for sex trafficking victims to sue the websites through which they were trafficked. As a result from the passing of this bill, Craigslist shut down its personal ad section; however, this website remains active today. Backpage, on the other hand, was seized by the FBI and it remains seized to this day. Although action was taken against these websites, there are still several other active websites similar to Craigslist and Backpage. Those who relied on the two sites for sex trafficking have turned to other places on the internet. Shutting down sex advertisements in these cases have not stopped pimps from trafficking young girls and women online; it has just moved their operations to other providers. Despite efforts to target and censor websites like Craigslist and Backpage, trafficking displacement is an inevitable consequence.14 The FBI, however, is making an effort to monitor different forms of illegal activities online, especially sex trafficking. One way we can help fight online sex trafficking is by going after those websites that allow it to happen. If you go to the FBI website, you will find information on how to report instances of human trafficking. The FBI informs us to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) if we believe that we are a victim of a trafficking situation or if we have information on a potential trafficking situation. We can reach the NHTRC at  1-888-373-7888, where we can talk to specialists who answer calls at anytime from anywhere. 15 Do not be afraid to seek out help or to report what you believe may be a trafficking situation. Let’s help put an end to online sex trafficking!

  1. Shana M. Judge, “The Effect of Measures Taken by Craigslist to Screen Online Ads for Commercial Sex,” Social Science Computer Review 36, no. 3 (June 2018): 298.
  2. Marie- Helen Maras, “Online Classified Advertisement Sites: Pimps and Facilitators of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking,” Journal of Internet Law 21, no. 5 (2017): 17.
  3. Erin Heil and Andrea Nichols, “Hot Spot Trafficking: A Theoretical Discussion of the Potential Problems Associated with Targeted Policing and the Eradication of Sex Trafficking in the United States,” Contemporary Justice Review 17, no. 4 (2014): 422.
  4. Shana M. Judge, “The Effect of Measures Taken by Craigslist to Screen Online Ads for Commercial Sex,” Social Science Computer Review 36, no. 3 (June 2018): 298.
  5. Shana M. Judge, “The Effect of Measures Taken by Craigslist to Screen Online Ads for Commercial Sex,” Social Science Computer Review 36, no. 3 (June 2018): 299.
  6. Erin Heil and Andrea Nichols, “Hot Spot Trafficking: A Theoretical Discussion of the Potential Problems Associated with Targeted Policing and the Eradication of Sex Trafficking in the United States,” Contemporary Justice Review 17, no. 4 (2014): 428.
  7. Erin Heil and Andrea Nichols, “Hot Spot Trafficking: A Theoretical Discussion of the Potential Problems Associated with Targeted Policing and the Eradication of Sex Trafficking in the United States,” Contemporary Justice Review 17, no. 4 (2014): 429.
  8. Kerianne Strachan, “Doe v. Backpage.com: The United States Court of Appeals Further Extends Immunity for Internet Service Providers Under the Communications Decency Act,” Tulane Journal of Technology & Intellectual Property 19, (2016): 262 and 47 U.S. Code § 230 – Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material, and S.652 – Telecommunications Act of 1996 enacted by 104th Congress (1995-1996).
  9. § 230. Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material, 47 USCS § 230 ( Current through PL 115-253, approved 10/3/18 ). https://advance-lexis-com.blume.stmarytx.edu/api/document?collection=statutes-legislation&id=urn:contentItem:4YF7-GV61-NRF4-44C3-00000-00&context=1516831.
  10. § 230. Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material, 47 USCS § 230 ( Current through PL 115-253, approved 10/3/18 ). https://advance-lexis-com.blume.stmarytx.edu/api/document?collection=statutes-legislation&id=urn:contentItem:4YF7-GV61-NRF4-44C3-00000-00&context=1516831.
  11. Marie-Helen Maras, “Online Classified Advertisement Sites: Pimps and Facilitators of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking,” Journal of Internet Law 21, no. 5 (2017): 18.
  12. Shana M. Judge, “The Effect of Measures Taken by Craigslist to Screen Online Ads for Commercial Sex,” Social Science Computer Review 36, no. 3 (June 2018): 298.
  13. S. 1693, 115th Cong. (2018) Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (enacted).
  14. Erin Heil and Andrea Nichols, “Hot Spot Trafficking: A Theoretical Discussion of the Potential Problems Associated with Targeted Policing and the Eradication of Sex Trafficking in the United States,” Contemporary Justice Review 17, no. 4 (2014): 432.
  15. “Human Trafficking/Involuntary Servitude.” FBI. May 03, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/civil-rights/human-trafficking.
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136 Comments

  • I think its sickening that the government protected whese websites from being sued just because THEY didnt post the ad for sex trafficking. I’m glad they have changed this and made it to where they should be held reliable and accountable for what goes on their website. If they cared about their people, the “burden” of deleting sex ads wouldn’t be much of a burden to begin with.

  • I can see where the idea that going after websites that allow advertisements comes from; however, I strongly disagree. No matter how many restrictions and fees are placed, there will always be a way around them. Sex-traffickers can easily go to other websites and as it was stated earlier in the article, code words are easily used and other information can be coded to make it seem harmless. Sex trafficking is a huge problem and it is only getting worse. It is sad to see how young women and men are separated from their family and placed in these horrifying conditions.

  • It is unfortunate and completely wrong that this is happening. Women and children shouldn’t be sold for any uses and it should be stopped. Luckily there is some improvements on the cases, but it is still happening. More actions should be made against the companies and programs that allow this to happen. With that, more agencies should help remove it and save the people who are being held against their will in these situations.

  • Sex trafficking has always been a global issue and one that cannot be conquered so easily. I had heard about Craigslist because my grandfather would sell all of his restaurant supplies on there and it is crazy to think that on the same website there was kids and women being sold. I would like to imagine a world where sex trafficking no longer exists but sadly there are other countries that make it easier for sex traffickers to manage their business. Luckily there are forces in the United States that are trying to find all of the abusers and tracking them down. As the author stated, although there are certain limitations that are brought upon these websites, there will always be loopholes and sadly this is something that I see hard to strain away from.

  • sex trafficking is one of the worst things to happen, it is also one of my biggest fears. These women and children are being forced to do things they do not want to do and are not proud of while other people ignore it just to make some quick cash. This article really informed me on how careful we have to be in the world. It’s sad to know these websites are not doing anything to stop this from happening. It just goes to show how terrible our society still is. I know people are trying to make laws to help make it safer for people but sex trafficking is something that will take a while before we can completely control anything.

  • Honestly, sex trafficking is my biggest fear. It is so disgusting and terrifying how it is still happening. It is also disheartening when Craigslist and Backpage did little to nothing to stop the trafficking. Women and children are being exploited while these companies make money off of it. It is also scary that this has gone to court and still nothing has changed, who is there to help these victims? Feels like a helpless situation when little action has taken place.

  • With sex trafficking being such an ongoing issue to society this article did a great job. It not only shed light on something that is overlooked but also brought the reality of it all to life. Sex trafficking is a huge problem that just seems to escalate. When reading this article it was very hard to understand how big organizations like Craigslist and Backpage did so little to help the problem. Overall great article, you touched on a lot of great topics within it.

  • Sex trafficking should never be taken lightly. This is such an overlooked issue. I am always afraid personally, especially with Texas having some of the larger rates in the United States with Houston being a main hotspot. This article does a wonderful job in explaining the background and information being used in by human traffickers abusing the Craigslist system. Moral of the story: never be too cautious. Things like this make it so difficult for people to trust one another.

  • Sex trafficking is a serious and scary problem in the world. It is so sad and disgusting that Craigslist and Backpage are not doing anything to stop sex traffickers from using their site. This article really informed me on this topic because I did not know about the adult fee. Instead of actually taking action against these people they used it as a way to make money, which worked out successfully for them. It’s really scary that young woman and children are being put in harm and these companies refuse to take it seriously. They have both been brought to court and to the Senate and still nothing has changed. This article had a lot of good research done, congratulations on your nomination.

  • This article sheds light on an issue that I think is overlooked by many people. Sex trafficking is a huge problem in our society, and it was disheartening to read that Craigslist and Backpage did very little to stop trafficking on their websites. It was even more shocking to read that the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the websites. It is good to see the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act become Law, but it is only the first step on the long road to full eradication of sex trafficking.

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