The big question with this issue is: How can sex be safely sold online? And when it's exploitive—allowing people easy access to underage kids—who bears the responsibility?
Backpage is a Craigslist-like site that's a bulletin board for all kinds of postings, from people looking to sell boats to a "VERY open minded hot Japanese & Italian Mixed star with sexy natural curves" who is just looking to enjoy herself in the Portland area. While it's just one website, Backpage has sparked major controversy in the Northwest, with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn leading the charge for the website to require in-person ID checks of people listing escort ads. Like the controversy over underage sex ads on Craigslist, McGinn, Adams, and others say Backpage's process of allowing posters to just click a box saying they're over 18 enables easy exploitation of children.
Washington even passed a "Backpage law" this year making it a crime to publish—knowingly or unknowingly—ads for sex with minors. The law was supposed to go into effect this month, but Backpage filed suit to stop it. Their argument is that the law violates the First Amendment, since the government is mandating what kind of speech can be posted on a website. Framed that way, this law is a chilling precedent. But Backpage is no WikiLeaks. We should be able to distinguish legally between sites that are posting useful information the government doesn't want out for political reasons and sites that post content that leads directly to the exploitation of children.
This is an issue that specifically weighs on alt-weekly newspapers. Backpage runs the classified ads for alt-weeklies nationwide, including Village Voice media papers and Willamette Week, which doesn't list escort ads directly on their site but has a click-through to see them. The Mercury stopped hosting escort ads a couple years ago, but in our paper's early years, we required only online verification of age. In the early 2000s (no one at this paper remembers exactly when), we switched to requiring the type of in-person age verification McGinn and Adams are pushing for.
It seems to me that the mayors are taking the right tactic by pressuring Backpage and similar sites to change their policies voluntarily. An online, illegal sex economy is always going to exist on the fringes of the internet. But making the mainstream players change their ways to require in-person age verification will—hopefully—make exploitation of young people a less attractive option for pimps and make the sites safer spaces for adults who are seeking legal, consensual sex.
But I'm convinced by Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna's argument that a law is necessary to back up voluntary changes, especially since the law provides a defense for people who check IDs of sex ad-placers in-person (even if they're scammed by a fake ID):
Backpage is many things, but an ally in the fight against trafficking it’s not. It’s a cash machine churning out tens of millions a year for its owners by charging $1 and up for prostitution advertisements. And it’s found frequently in police reports. As the Seattle Times reported on May 7, “Since 2010, Seattle police have recovered 24 juveniles advertised on Backpage.com, two of them in the past two months."
Washington state’s Legislature this year passed a groundbreaking bill making it a crime to post minors for sale online, while providing an affirmative defense for those who can demonstrate they verified a person’s age before accepting the advertisement.