Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

State ban on sex listings is a dangerous move

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
June 8, 2012 -- Updated 1400 GMT (2200 HKT)
If you go to Backpage.com, you'll find sexual advertisements such as these.
If you go to Backpage.com, you'll find sexual advertisements such as these.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Calls to close Backpage.com are scattershot, potentially dangerous
  • He says authorities say ads there peddle underage prostitutes, which is heinous
  • He says federal law doesn't hold sites responsible for third-party generated content
  • Rushkoff: Village Voice may be right to resist challenge but should ditch sex listings

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age" and "Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World and How We Can Take It Back."

(CNN) -- Underage sex trafficking is an awful thing, on that we can all agree. But the growing clamor by individual U.S. states for the shutdown of Village Voice Media's web-based advertising site, Backpage.com, is panicky, scattershot, legally suspect and potentially just as dangerous.

Backpage.com is a personals website with a special "adult" section containing a wealth of listings for escort services. Like the back pages of most alternative local news weeklies, or for that matter the Yellow Pages of the phone book, the website contains ads and pictures that make no pretense about what is being offered. These are ads for prostitutes.

What has particularly upset law enforcement officials and attorneys general, however, is that these listings have been used by underage prostitutes and the pimps selling them. Some of the listings also come from brothels whose workers are either illegal aliens or trafficked sex slaves.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

While Backpage has attempted to exercise some level of editorial control over its listings and also cooperates with police investigations into the activities of its posters, many are arguing that the mere existence of such listings promote prostitution, an illegal activity, and child sex slavery, a heinous and intolerable practice.

Most notably, Nicholas Kristof wrote a scathing piece in The New York Times, calling Backpage a "godsend to pimps, allowing customers to order a girl online as if she were a pizza."

He went on to list some examples of young girls trafficked through the site, including one as young as 13. Village Voice hit back, questioning his reporting, and he responded in kind defending it.

Lawyer defends adult service ads on site
Sex-trafficking: 'We've got to do more'
Accusations of sex trade marketplace

As the rhetoric heated up, arguments seemed to focus more on dates of birth and the technicalities of web launches than the crime of child prostitution or how to stop it. As usual, the horror of child abuse and mysteriousness of the Internet combined to distort rational debate and cloud reality.

Meanwhile, the anonymously run website, "Village Voice Pimps," uses the most sensationalist language it can muster, along with personal attacks and dossiers on Village Voice writers and editors who have nothing to do with the parent company, Village Voice Media's advertising supplement.

To me, these posts seem much more concerned with lambasting the Village Voice newspaper for its pro-gay and "immoral" stances than its ownership by the same media company that owns Backpage. In a sense, the girls and young women affected are being pimped yet again

Travel: Fighting sex trafficking in hotels, one room at a time

This is the environment in which Washington state wrote its well-meaning but ultimately ill-informed law SB 6251, making it a felony to publish "any advertisement for a commercial sex act, which is to take place in the state of Washington and that includes the depiction of a minor." Ever since Craigslist closed its "adult" section, Backpage had become the go-to online spot for sex listings. Its presence grew to be ubiquitous across the United States, making it the target of numerous law enforcement and attorneys general.

Like the other states hoping to curtail the practice of underage prostitution and sex slavery, Washington state believes that the websites listing escort services should be held accountable for the listings on their pages.

The problem is it's awfully hard to tell whether a person posting an ad for a 21-year-old escort is telling the truth. As written, Washington's law applies whether or not the person or business knew that minors were to be involved. So if someone were to post a comment to the article you are now reading that included a hint of how or where to find illegal sex with a minor, CNN would be feloniously liable.

The Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, was written to prevent just such blanket liability traps from hindering normal communication on the Internet.

Congress determined that a free and open Internet required that the host of a site not be responsible for "third-party generated content." Congress also realized -- as the Village Voice has argued -- that the Internet actually makes it a whole lot easier to catch predators and sex traffickers. Unlike underground or street prostitution, this activity occurs out on the open Web and is highly traceable by IP addresses and other means.

Ultimately, ending sex trafficking of minors is just not the best basis for developing good Internet policy. It is outlier behavior, and the very mention of its existence ends up paralyzing more rational debate and legislative specificity. In this case, it becomes an excuse to pile on a New York-based, gay-friendly, left-leaning publication with a fine history of investigative journalism.

Meanwhile, Village Voice Media may be correct in challenging a law that paralyzes the Internet, but its inability to find a business model that doesn't depend on the adult sex industry is its own fault.

Craigslist voluntarily removed its own "adult" section when the arguments for maintaining it just became untenable. Village Voice Media was the beneficiary of all that adult content, and is now the bearer of the karma. This sort of content is not just unbecoming of an editorial group that prides itself on promoting ethics and social justice; it is hypocritical.

Like any alternative newspaper, the Village Voice can argue that an underserved subculture -- the sex industry -- deserves a forum through which to take care of its business in the safest, most traceable and transparent way possible. But the listings on Backpage don't reflect such priorities, nor do they reflect well on the integrity of the company that is hosting them.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT