AG Kilmartin Statement on Backpage.com Decision to Shutter Online Ads that Promote Child Sex Trafficking

RI – In response to the findings from a new report by the United States Senate that showed Backpage.com knowingly profited from and facilitated child sex trafficking, the website announced it was shuttering its adult online ads section.

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin has called for years for the website to be shut down and has urged the United States Congress to amend the federal Communications Decency Act, which Backpage.com has used to hide behind while continuing its criminal activities, to provide criminal jurisdiction to state and local prosecutors.

«As the Senate report shows, there is no question that Backpage.com knew that its site was being used for the explicit purposes of child sex trafficking and profited from its actions at the expense of countless victims. I would argue that Backpage.com made it easy for traffickers to engage in the illegal activity. We have prosecuted a number of individuals for sex trafficking and the one commonality among those cases was the use of Backpage.com by the traffickers. For the company to hide behind Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act and the First Amendment as it raked in tens of millions of dollars of profit from trafficking young people is despicable. Today’s news that the site will no longer allow for such ads is welcome, but it brings no source of comfort for those young people who were victimized by the company’s greed,» said Attorney General Kilmartin.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was drafted when the internet was in its infancy. The original purpose of the Act was to protect children from accessing indecent material online, but courts have interpreted certain provisions of the Act to provide immunity from state prosecution to online classified ad sites, such as Backpage.com, that promote and profit from human trafficking. Specifically, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects firms that host user content online from state criminal liability. In 2013, Attorney General Kilmartin urged Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act to provide criminal jurisdiction of sites promoting child sex trafficking to state and local prosecutors.

Kilmartin also questioned the timing of the news by Backpage. «I find it very convenient for Backpage.com to announce the shuttering of these ads on the eve of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing and the publication of the Committee’s study. This is clearly an attempt to shield the company from further scrutiny and potential liability. If the company executives were serious about ensuring sex trafficking was not core to its business model, they would have taken steps years ago to shut it down. Had the company done so, countless young women would not have been victimized, even murdered.»

«While I applaud the Senate for its relentless efforts to finally pull open the curtain on Backpage.com and for trying to bring the company before the Committee to account for its actions, it is not enough. Without updating the Communications Decency Act, we still have no authority to ensure Backpage.com does not recommence such ads once the scrutiny of the media and the Senate committee diminishes. I urge the United States Senate to immediately amend the Communications Decency Act and put Backpage.com, and other sites like it, out of business once and for all,» added Kilmartin.

Since coming into office in 2011, Attorney General Kilmartin has actively fought to end human trafficking. The efforts to shutdown these ads on Backpage.com stems back to 2011 when Attorney General Kilmartin, in partnership with the National Association of Attorneys General, sent a letter to the company requesting it provide documentation on how it allegedly assured ads for child sex trafficking were prohibited from its site. The company failed to provide the requested documentation and continued, even expanded, the allowance of online ads that promoted child sex trafficking.

Locally, Attorney General Kilmartin has advocated for longer sentences for those found guilty of child sex trafficking, and last year, the General Assembly passed and the Governor signed a bill filed at the request of Attorney General Kilmartin that requires those found guilty of sex trafficking register as a sex offender.

In addition, the Sex Trafficking Law Enforcement Task Force, of which the Office of Attorney General is a member, worked closely with Day One in Providence, the Aubin Center at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, DCYF, the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association to develop a uniform response protocol intended to serve as a guide and resource to assist in detecting and investigating the commercial sexual exploitation of children, successfully prosecuting those who engage in this conduct, and addressing the recovery needs of the victims of this crime.

«While I believe that the shutdown of Backpage.com will have a positive impact in curbing the sex trafficking of minors, I fear that traffickers will find alternate Internet-based avenues to use. Today may be a victory, but the war on sex trafficking has not yet been won,» added Kilmartin.