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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.

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

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