SANTA MONICA, CA – A coalition of anti-child sex trafficking and public interest groups, and the mother of a trafficking victim, today released a report detailing how a Google-funded campaign protects a law that shields a notorious hub of child sex-trafficking, Backpage.com, from any accountability for its activities. Google and the organizations it funds purport to be protecting free speech on the Internet.
The coalition challenged Google – and the organizations it funds – to acknowledge the damage Backpage has caused and to support changes in a key internet law – Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — that shields the child sex-trafficking hub from accountability for its ongoing abuses.
“Once again the bottom dollar means more than the lives left in the distinctive path of Backpage. This just shows how other companies would rather back them and save their ‘precious’ Section 230, than to see a safer Internet,” said Nacole S., mother of a sex trafficking victim sold at Backpage.com, and who is featured in a new documentary film, I Am Jane Doe, that deals with the issue.
Joining in issuing the report were the victim’s mother Nacole S., Consumer Watchdog, DeliverFund, Faith and Freedom Coalition, The Rebecca Project and Trafficking In America Taskforce. View a copy of the report, How Google’s Backing of Backpage Protects Child Sex Trafficking, here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/backpagereport.pdf
Read the groups’ letter to the CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, Larry Page, Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google CEO Sundar Pichai here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/sites/default/files/resources/ltralphabetgooglebackpage051717final.pdf
Two nonprofit organizations that have led the legal effort defending Section 230 benefiting Backpage, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have received millions from Alphabet Inc.’s Internet giant, Google. In addition to their heavy funding from Google, both groups have dozens of top advisors with close ties to Google that are detailed in the comprehensive report.
Legal scholars and groups supported by Google have written letters and amicus briefs in support of Backpage. Google has also deployed at least four of its lobbying firms to fight efforts to close the legal loophole that allows Backpage to profit from child trafficking, the report found.
“For years, one company—Backpage.com—has dominated online trafficking in minors for sex. The advertising giant’s reach is vast, with sites catering to 437 locations in the U.S. and 506 overseas. So is its impact: By one count, 73% of all suspected child trafficking reports in the U.S. involve Backpage,” the report said.
“This report is one more indication that tech companies have gone out of their way to defend what the U.S. Senate found to be essentially a boiler room operation to facilitate the crime of child sex trafficking,” said Mary Mazzio, director and producer of I Am Jane Doe. “It is time for the tech community to be part of the solution, and finally stand with the victims of this devastating crime."
The groups were inspired to release an investigation of Backpage’s supporters after watching I Am Jane Doe. The film is now available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon, and will be available on Netflix beginning May 26th. The trailer can be viewed at http://www.iamjanedoefilm.com/
Backpage’s victims have filled multiple lawsuits, legal actions and government investigations, including: A 13-year-old girl in Miami whose pimp tattooed his name on her eyelids; and, a 15-year-old in Seattle who was sold for sex more than 150 times.
Despite widespread revulsion at its business model, the groups said, Backpage has managed to elude a series of legal challenges and beat back legislative efforts to stop it from advertising children for sex. The sex trafficking hub has repeatedly cited Section 230 of the CDA, which protects an Internet site from liability for crimes by people using the site’s services, as its defense.
“Proponents have argued that it protects and promotes free speech on the Internet,” the report noted. “They have, however, ignored the devastating impact the law can have in its current form.”
“Freedom of expression on the Internet is vital to the internet platforms we all enjoy, but exploitation of children should not be a second order effect of that freedom. Proper protection of children is essential and should be built into the framework of every policy and law governing the hosting of content on the Internet,” said Nic McKinley, executive director of DeliverFund. “There is no choice between freedom and the protection of children. The internet can remain neutral, free, and protect children simultaneously; we have only to choose to make it so."
“Citing something called the Communications Decency Act to protect such immoral activity is the ultimate irony,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “This isn’t about free expression; it’s about protecting gargantuan profits at the expense of children’s lives. Just like the First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to scream fire in a crowded theater, Section 230 can’t be allowed to protect child sex trafficking.”
In its successful efforts, Backpage has benefitted from the help of an all-star cast of lawyers and legal scholars, as well as significant political and lobbying muscle that it could not assemble itself.
“The common factor behind nearly all those forces: Alphabet Inc.’s Internet giant, Google,” the report said. Here are some of the worst examples of young girls being sold through Backpage that are cited in the report:
• A case in Atlanta, GA of a 12-year-old girl whose pimp regularly tasered her and even forced her to work while pregnant with his child.
• A New York City case of a 13-year-old girl who was regularly beaten and even kicked down a stairwell for trying to escape her pimp.
• A Miami case of a 13-year-old girl whose pimp had tattooed his name on the girl’s eyelids.
• A Seattle case in which a 15-year-old girl was sold for sex more than 150 times.
• A Chicago case in which a 16-year-old, suffering from depression, left home. Three weeks later, she was advertised for sex on Backpage and murdered at the hands of her Backpage buyer.
The report’s analysis of public records, tax documents and legal filings and other publicly-available documents shows Google has financed and supported a broad array of groups and individuals who have fought aggressively to thwart legal challenges to Backpage’s business model. Efforts have included:
• Legal scholars and groups supported by Google have written letters and amicus briefs in support of Backpage. More than half of the 42 signatories of a letter opposing a bill to tackle online child trafficking—22 in all—were either directly funded by Google, or worked at institutions that were funded by the company.
• At least four of Google’s lobbying firms have also worked to block efforts by the U.S. Congress to strengthen laws to prevent child sex-trafficking under the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE Act) of 2014 that would have targeted Backpage and held it accountable.
• Google hired one of the leading campaigners for shutting down Backpage’s child-trafficking ads, who, after being hired, then changed her stance on the issue to align with her new employer. She now argues that it isn’t possible to shut down sites like Backpage and that laws should target buyers rather than websites that advertise children for sex.
Google’s financial support of EFF, CDT and dozens of other groups, has contributed to a string of legal successes by Backpage and complicated the quest for justice among its underage victims. Since 2011, the nonprofits have helped Backpage defeat several cases related to child sex trafficking by filing Section 230 briefs on Backpage’s behalf. Among the initiatives the groups have helped defeat:
• A legal case brought by three underage sex-trafficking victims who were advertised on Backpage and sold for sex in Massachusetts and Rhode Island more than 1,900 times over three years.
• Proposed state laws aimed at curbing Backpage’s child sex advertisements in Washington, New Jersey, and Tennessee.
• Efforts by law enforcement in Cook County, Illinois, to prevent the use of credit card payments to purchase ads offering children for sex.
• Efforts by 49 state attorneys general to amend Section 230 to give state and local law enforcement officials the authority to criminally investigate and prosecute companies like Backpage for promoting child sex trafficking.
• The “reckless” standard in early versions of Congressional legislation such as the SAVE Act, which strengthened child sex trafficking laws by making it illegal for online advertisers to recklessly disregard child sex trafficking occurring on their websites.
Defenders of CDA Section 230 claim it promotes and protects free expression on the Internet. Alphabet Inc.’s Google has another reason to protect Section 230: business. Google says the law provides it with almost unlimited immunity from liability for crimes committed using its services. That includes the posting of pirated movies and music to its YouTube service, fraudulent advertisements posted through its AdWords service or Google suggesting trademarked terms as advertising keywords.
“Section 230 has been central to Google’s stratospheric success over the past two decades,” the report said. “Partly as a result of the provision, a Harvard professor reported in 2011 that Google earned over $1 billion in revenue annually from Google advertisers posting unlawful material related to child trafficking, illegal drugs, and counterfeit goods.”
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Visit Consumer Watchdog’s Website at www.consumerwatchdog.org
Visit The Rebecca Project for Justice’s website at www.rebeccaprojectjustice.org
Visit Trafficking in America Taskforce’s website at www.traffickinginamericataskforce.org
Visit Faith and Freedom Coalition’s website at www.ffcoalition.com
Visit DeliverFund at www.deliverfund.org