Backpage.com doesn’t have a lot of friends among South Dakota’s law enforcement community.
The online classified site’s “adult services” section, which users pay to place ads on, has been called out as a hub of sex trafficking by countless law enforcement agents. Nearly every case of sex trafficking prosecuted in federal court in South Dakota has been linked to the escort ads.
Attorney General Marty Jackley would like to see the site’s owners “held accountable” – prosecuted, in other words - for their role in facilitating prostitution. He signed on to a letter this summer urging Congressional representatives to amend the Communication Decency Act that some have interpreted as offering immunity from prosecution to sites like backpage.
Jackley’s position is commonly held outside South Dakota, as well.
It might surprise you, then, to know that the site sent their lawyer, Liz McDougall, to a human trafficking task force hearing in Arizona Wednesday morning. It probably shouldn’t, though. McDougall actually does this kind of thing quite frequently.
McDougall worked for craiglist before that site shut down its adult service section. She also worked for Village Voice Media before it cut ties with backpage last fall. She’s testified before Congressional committees, appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show and turned up in plenty of other places.
Gov. Jan Brewer’s task force is putting together anti-trafficking proposals for lawmakers in advance of the 2015 Super Bowl. Wednesday’s meeting dealt with online facilitation of sex trafficking, which deals pretty squarely with the accusations the law enforcement community has thrown at backpage.com.
I heard about McDougall’s testimony through a press release from Shared Hope International, a nonprofit that works with trafficking victims, rates states based on their sex trafficking laws and does training sessions for law enforcement and community activists.
Shared Hope’s email labeled backpage “the industry leader in commercial facilitation of commercial sex.”
So what did McDougall say on Wednesday? According to Shared Hope Program Director Eliza Reock, who attended the task force meeting, she said what she’s said for years: We want to partner with law enforcement and help whenever we can, we screen and flag our content (this lead to the prosecution of one man in Sioux Falls) and that if regulators kick these ads off sites in the U.S., ad placement services will move overseas.
McDougall explained that backpage has a 3-tiered system for identifying potential trafficking activity. Task force members responded by showing McDougall a backpage ad that featured a young woman sitting on the edge of a bed who was looking, according to the text, for a “daddy.”
“The whole task force just slammed her,” Reock said.
The back-and-forth was about as ugly as I’d expect, at least according to Reock’s recounting of it.
I wish I could have been there to hear it and write up the play-by-play. Luckily, there are reporters who’ve covered her testimony before and done so.
Here’s a link to a story from Joe Pompeo, who covered a meeting in New York last year that was similar to Wednesday’s hearing in Phoenix. As you might imagine, McDougall was “slammed” there, too. Pompeo’s story appeared in a publication called Capital, and the full article is worth a read.
At one point, when challenged about adult ads and their contribution to the exploitation of children, McDougall talked about her teenage daughter and said “My heart breaks for these children.”
A quick search for articles on Wednesday’s hearing turned up nothing. If you can find one, let me know and I’ll link to it.
If McDougall ever shows up in South Dakota and spars with Marty Jackley or U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, I’ll let you know …