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A different approach to policing online sex trafficking advertising

I posted earlier this week about the ridiculousness of trying to quash online sex trafficking through site shutdowns.

A quick history of music piracy may help illustrate why shutting down websites is a futile approach to solving a problem that doesn’t depend on any give website or technology. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. With piracy platforms, we’ve had Napster, then Kazaa, then Limewire, and now torrents pop with sites like Pirate Bay helping with discovery up as previous piracy platforms were shut down. Napster’s founders aren’t in jail. They’re now a millionaire and billionaire.

With each generation of piracy technology (a generation runs around 2-7 years these days), it has actually become far more efficient to pirate content. With Napster, a user connected to someone else’s computer who had the song you wanted, and suffered through the upload speeds of the person you were attempting to upload the song from. If they disconnected, whoops! With torrents, a song (or album, entire life’s work, movie, TV show, season of a show, every season of a show) is simultaneously downloaded to your computer in small pieces from as many as thousands of computers around the world then assembled into complete files on your computer.

If preventing piracy was their goal, music labels and movie studios would be far better off today is they were living in a Napster world rather than a Kazaa, Limewire, or torrent world. Quashing Napster led to innovation.

Which brings us to how governments, including the Minneapolis City Council, are attempting to address online sex trafficking.

In August, the Minneapolis City Council decided to take a whack-a-mole approach of quashing a specific website:

On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council gave final approval of a resolution that calls for the closure of classified-ads website’s controversial adult section. As we reported earlier this month, Minneapolis police announced that all 20 child sex trafficking cases it has investigated so far this year involved juveniles advertised on Backpage.

While 20 cases of child sex trafficking is serious, hundreds of ads per day are posted to Backpage’s adult classifieds section, so 20 cases have been made out of the approximately 100,000 ads that have run on the site so far this year in Minneapolis. The point being that the vast majority of people advertising (and people interested in) in some form of paid adult service is likely not interested in an experience with a minor.

Nicole Norfleet with the Strib explained why the city council has problems with the site:

Posters on Backpage can easily and without spending much money reach a broad audience by publishing ads, some of which are listed under “escorts” and “body rubs” and which often are accompanied by photos of scantily dressed girls and women.

However, since we’re talking about real estate (shutting down a property) on the internet (where property is unlimited) the results of this effort will likely repeat what we’ve seen in this and other industries in the past. In fact, shutting down Backpage could cause far more harm than good by driving this type of advertising toward sites based outside the United States who could care less about a Minneapolis City Council resolution.

Here what Mayor Rybak said about his own history (in publishing) with adult classifieds:

“When I published the Twin Cities Reader in the 1990s, we turned down ads from because we refused to participate in the trafficking of women and children. It cost us a lot of money, but it was the right thing to do,” Rybak said.

It’s the right thing to do if you don’t want to make money from this type of advertising, but the lack of adult classifieds ads in the Twin Cities Reader had no impact on the ability of sex traffickers to advertise.

“Times have changed: now, ending sex trafficking is a national priority, and Minneapolis police and city attorneys are doing incredible work to fight it right here.”

At that time, the game of whack-a-mole was in print, so enough cooperation among local print media outlets might have slowed things down a bit in this town, but the playing field has changed dramatically since then. Now, the physical location of a website is irrelevant to the sell and buy side of adult classifieds transactions.

Rybak had signed a letter along with other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in May asking for Backpage’s owner to require in-person verification of an escort advertiser’s ID and proof of age and identity of those depicted in the escort ads.

This tactic would likely have some impact on policing ads if we still lived in a world where advertisers relied upon a single property with a local presence to advertise.

Perhaps there is a better way to address this? Here’s something to consider: If someone is advertising a service that involves a physical meetup, one should be able to figure out who’s behind the ad (or, at least who’s providing the services advertised). With that in mind, I think this might help address the problem better than the approaches the Minneapolis City Council has recently taken (and US Attorney Generals took with Craigslist in 2010):

Go after the problem

In the physical world, if police report that there is a significant amount of prostitution happening along a certain street at certain times of day, the response to the problem is obvious: focus on the problem where it exists by increasing patrols in that area at those times of day.

But, when this behavior transfers to the web, law enforcement seems to think that the answer is to shut down the street. That doesn’t work when it costs less than $10 to build a new street (and that street can be built and maintained by anyone, anywhere in the world).

Instead, it seems like law enforcement could focus on patrolling online streets with decent data mining. There are only so many advertisers and most use a phone number in their ads. Over time, law enforcement could identify who’s behind those phone numbers so they can focus their policing. From the sound of it, most departments aren’t particularly concerned with what happens between consenting adults, so once you know that a number is associated with an adult, you can move on to crimes with victims.

Log the numbers.

Identify who’s behind them.

Track new numbers.

For example, when I see an ad from a woman who says she’s 37 years old who has photos that seem to fit that age, who has third party reviews of her services dating back to 2007, I don’t see a case of child exploitation.

That’s an example where law enforcement can decide whether consenting adult services are something worthy of their limited resources.

But, when I see an ad for a girl who claims to be 26 with an out of state phone number, who poses with a toilet in a bathroom, I get the impression that law enforcement should figure out what’s going on there.

It’s a somewhat tedious approach, but can have real results. It’s policing done well. It also scales across the web to wherever adult classifieds ads are hosted rather than putting an inordinate amount of time into shutting down one of a nearly infinite number of current and future sites.

This post was written by Ed Kohler and originally published on The Deets. Follow Ed on Twitter: @edkohler.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Lewis on 09/21/2012 - 04:21 am.

    what proof do they have that they were forced against their will

    Mostly, the police found and arrested adult prostitutes and pimps. When the police go after underage prostitutes they mostly find and arrest adult prostitutes and johns. Why are the police wasting their time on adult prostitutes? Instead of spending that time going after underage prostitutes?

    Why aren’t the police finding millions of children forced against their will to have sex for money? Because their aren’t millions of them. And what proof do they have that they were forced against their will?

    Why are the police just finding, and arresting consensual adults? Because the child victims either don’t exist or are very few in number. They use the excuse of children to arrest consenting adults. If they are just after children, they why don’t they leave the consenting adults alone? The police arrest the consenting adults that they find Why?

    If there is no children involved – why arrest the consenting adult prostitutes, johns, and pimps? They are no children involved? Why are the police wasting their time on adult prostitutes? Instead of spending that time going after underage prostitutes? Because the police are mostly after adult prostitutes, not children.

    Were all the underage prostitutes forced and raped? crying, kicking and screaming while being forced, against their will to have sex for money?

    If a prostitute is 17 and under the age of 18, she can not give legal consent. So, she could have wanted to be a prostitute, and given consent for sex, but since she is underage, she can not give legal consent, so legally she was “forced” even if she gives total consent to sex and it was consensual – she was “forced” according to the court and justice system. There is a BIG difference between being legally “forced” and truly being physically forced against someone’s will.

    This gives the impression that all prostitutes under the age of 18 are “forced” when they may in fact, not have been. If fact, if two people who are both 17 years old have sex, they both are legally considered to be victims and sex predators at the same time. It is strange how the justice system works.

    There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, that receive funds from the government.

    When the police arrest customers of prostitutes and the prostitutes themselves:
    They try to get the adult women prostitutes to say that they were forced and victims of sex trafficking even though they weren’t.
    These adult women just flat out say, ‘Nope, that’s not what’s happening.’ No one is forcing me”
    Then the U.S. Attorney general, senators, the police and government officials say:
    “We have to help them realize they are victims,”
    They must be brainwashed by their pimps, and johns.
    They say that adult women do not have the ability to make decisions for themselves about sex, therefore
    The government must make all their decisions about sex and who they have sex with for them.
    So… the police are trying to invent victims? Where no victim exist?
    The adult women say that no one is forcing them to work in prostitution and the police don’t believe them?
    So the police want these adult women to lie? and the police are forcing the women to lie about being forced?
    I thought lying was wrong? And isn’t it against the law to lie? -Not for the police, attorney general and other government officials.

    Here is a good article from the Washington Post about this:

    Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence
    U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short
    By Jerry Markon
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, September 23, 2007

  2. Submitted by Jeff Lewis on 09/21/2012 - 04:25 am.

    two adults having consensual sex in private

    Sex Trafficking Sex Slavery is used by many groups as a attempt to outlaw all prostitution around the world by saying that all women are victims even if they do it willing. This hurts any real victims because it labels all sex workers as victims.

    This is done by the media, aid groups, NGO’s, feminists, politicians, and religious organizations that receive funds from the government. There are very strong groups who promote that all adult women who have sex are victims even if they are willing, enjoy it and go out of there way to get it. These groups try to get the public to believe that no adult women in their right mind would ever go into the sex business unless she was forced to do so, weather she knew it or not. They say that 100% of all sex workers are trafficking victims.

    They do this in order to label all men as sex offenders and wipe out all consensual prostitution. Which is what their real goal is. There is almost no one who challenges or questions them about their false beliefs. Therefore, the only voices you hear are of these extreme groups. These groups want to label all men as terrible sex offenders for seeing a willing adult woman. No one stands up to say this is foolish, the passive public says nothing.

    These groups even say that all men who marry foreign women are terrible sex predators who take advantage of these “helpless foreign women wives”.

    These groups believe that two adults having consensual sex in private should be outlawed. Since they believe that it is impossible for a man to have sex with a woman without abusing the woman in the process.

  3. Submitted by Delis Santana on 09/30/2012 - 01:59 pm.


    The first issue is that this accessible to anyone
    I am outraged at the fact that this crime is taken as serious as it is. All parties involved, the broker (pimp) the person soliciting and the prostitute with exception of innocent children. It’s amazing that this matter isnt taken as serious as it is! Any website that is used as a search engine to allow or support this act is very much a part of the problem! Child prostitution, drugs, diseases and cheating spouses, how is this even justified? I am honestly mortified at the fact that websites like this exist and further to that casual sex sites exist, what is this world coming too???

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