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. Napter’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 Backpage.com’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 Backpage.com 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…

Adult Advertising Adult Services

… 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 …

Questionable Backpages Ad

… 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.

4 thoughts on “A Different Approach to Policing Online Sex Trafficking Advertising”

  1. I’ve thought for a long time the answer is to go after the johns. If an adult man has sex with a 15 year old girl, that is rape, unless the girl is a prostitute. If you have sex with someone against their will, it is rape, unless that girl is a prostitute. If someone gets caught having sex with an underage prostitute they should be charged with statutory rape. If someone gets caught soliciting an underage prostitute they should be charged with child abuse. If someone gets caught having sex with a woman in prostitution against her will, that should be charged as rape.

    Johns take risks when they solicit prostitutes, but those risks do not include serious jail time and sex offender notification of neighbors. If there was a real threat, the market would correct itself and not offer underage prostitutes, or at least offer less.

  2. @Kassie, I would expect johns caught with, or soliciting, underage prostitutes that the johns would be charged appropriately. Is that not the case? It looks like 24 johns were arrested over 2 days at the LivINN Hotel in Fridley in a sting earlier this year, although it’s not clear if the johns were going there under the impression that it was for sex with an underage girl or not from the blotter.

  3. I just wish there was some term other than johns to describe patrons of prostitutes.

    For god’s sake, could folks AT LEAST learn not to capitalize the word when using it in this context, no more than you would capitalize when saying “I have to go to the john.”

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