Backpage.com’s sex ads at center of debate

Martha Irvine
Associated Press

Chicago — The adult ads on Backpage.com are endless — written in a sort of risque code to avoid implying something illegal, yet still obvious invitations for sex, adorned with suggestive photos and videos. Many in the fight against sex trafficking loathe the website, particularly since some escorts in the ads have turned out to be minors who’ve been forced into the sex trade.

An Illinois sheriff is among those targeting Backpage and recently helped convince Visa and Mastercard to stop providing payment services to the site.

“Whoever it is that’s facilitating these horrible crimes, we can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s OK. I guess it’s a business model,’ ” said Thomas Dart, the sheriff in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago.

He spoke the day before a judge issued a restraining order, preventing Dart from making further comment until a Backpage lawsuit against him — seeking a retraction of his statements to credit card companies and damages for lost revenue — is resolved.

Backpage attorneys, citing the First Amendment and federal statutes, argue that a public figure shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with a law-abiding company’s ability to do e-commerce.

Liz McDougall, general counsel, has long said that Backpage simply provides space for the ads but doesn’t create the content. And she takes it a step further, claiming that Backpage routinely works behind the scenes with law enforcement to help put traffickers behind bars.

At least one anti-trafficking group has been willing to work with Backpage to rescue young women and has accepted substantial donations from the site.

And even as some in law enforcement point a finger of blame at Backpage, others on the front lines of the fight against sex trafficking see the site as an ally — even if sometimes uncomfortably so.

“I don’t feel like demonizing them is the appropriate response. I feel like we should be working with them and focusing on … things that could make a difference,” said Sgt. Grant Snyder, the lead detective on the human trafficking team at the Minneapolis Police Department.