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.

Backpage Faces Same Wrath as Craigslist in Infinite Game of Whack-A-Mole

Back in October 2010, I wrote a post here about how Backpage would benefit from the work by attorney generals around the country who eliminated Backpage’s biggest competitor, Craiglist, from the adult classifieds advertising business.

According to traffic reporting service Compete.com, Backpage was averaging around 2.3 million unique visitors/month to their site before Craigslist was bullied out of the adult classifieds business. In the first month without CL as a competitor, Backpage gained around half a million new visitors:

backpage.com after Craigslist Dropped Adult Ads

Checking back in with Backpage today, we can see that Backpage’s traffic has continued to increase. Since 2010, Backpage’s unique visitors have increased 70% to 3.9 million/month:

backpage.com unique visitors Compete.com

Advanced Interactive Media Group attempted to quantify how much money was in play in adult services ads back in 2010 and came up with the following figures:

Backpage.com’s revenue from online prostitution ads in 23 U.S. cities increased 15.3 percent to at least $1,671,685 in September compared with August, according to research conducted by the Advanced Interactive Media Group in Altamonte Springs. Fla. That’s an annual rate of just over $20 million.

Assuming the revenue correlates with unique visitors (it wouldn’t necessarily, since it correlates with ads rather than how many people look at the ads), Backpage might be generating an additional million dollars per month thanks to attorney generals taking Craigslist out of the adult classifieds business.

For a local perspective here is how traffic has grown over the past year on the Minneapolis portion of Backpage:

minneapolis.backpage.com on Compete.com

Back before Craigslist caved to pressure from Attorney Generals around the country, CraigsList had implemented a manual screening process for every ad published to their erotic services categories. They also worked with law enforcement to help identify people involved in sex trafficking. Beyond that, law enforcement across the country have effectively patrolled Craigslist to solve crimes ranging from prostitution to bike thefts. Here’s a sample of headlines illustrating this:

Craigslist leads to arrest headlines

At this point, it seems clear to me that politicians have learned nothing from shutting down Craigslist – a site that monitored itself and cooperated with law enforcement to help solve crimes. History is repeating itself two years later with Backpage.com. Personally, if I had to choose a partner for policing prostitution online, I’d rather have Craigslist on my side than fight Backpage, but I doubt we’ll see history rolled back anytime soon.

Backpage does appear to be screening posts to their site (at least within the USA). For example, a search for “BBBJ Young” (look it up if you’re curious) doesn’t return ads for USA cities, but does for Canadian ones:

Over time, we’ll likely see Backpage fold, leading to the next round of adult classifieds whack-a-mole. Some early contenders can be found by looking at the other sites visited by those who visit backpage.com on Google Trends:

People who visited Backpage.com also visited

These sites cost nearly nothing to operate, and don’t necessarily need to be profitable to operate (although the market shows that there is a $20-30 million/yr business in this type of classified advertising). They also don’t need to be operated from within the United States or by an American company, which means that it may become tougher and tougher to pressure the beneficiaries of Backpage’s demise into shutting down. Look at The Pirate Bay for an example of this.

If the goal is to prevent sex trafficking, surely there are better approaches than playing a game of whack-a-mole where business could be driven to jurisdictions where local governments have no influence. More on that tomorrow.

Sources of CityPages’ Blotter Stories

I thought it might be fun to take a look at where CityPages’ Blotter stories originate. To do this, I mined through 3 months of CityPages Blotter stories that were later dugg on Digg.com and logged who the Blotter was riffing off (that’s riFFing):

Sources of CityPages Blotter Stories on Digg

The blue slice represents original work. These are often multi-page slide shows. After that, the Pioneer Press’ site tops the chart. Quite a few Wisconsin newspaper sites make the list since they’re good fodder for the shallow “someone in Wisconsin got drunk and did something stupid” stories that appear regularly on Blotter.

Overall, it seems like they’ve built a decent reblog mill based around snarking up mainstream news stories for cheap traffic.

Here’s the full list of sources with story count:

Source Stories
Original 19
TwinCities.com 13
StarTribune 9
Duluth News Tribune 6
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 5
PR 4
Appleton Post-Crescent 3
La Crosse Tribune 3
KARE11 2
Rochester Post-Bulletin 2
Brookfield Now 1
Des Moines Register 1
Eau Claire Leader-Telegram 1
Flickr 1
FOX Chattanooga 1
FOX9 1
Metblogs.com 1
Minnesota Public Radio 1
Politico 1
Post Crescent 1
Sheboygan Press 1
TalkingPointsMemo 1
TheHill.com 1
todaystmj4.com 1
Uncited 1
USNews.com 1
wauwatosanow.com 1
West Central Tribune 1
Winona Daily News 1

Domains of Emily Kaiser’s Diggs

Ryan asked the following question in the comments of my previous post about Emily Kaiser’s return to Digg.com:

That graph represents her diggs of VVM stories exclusively?

That’s a fair question. What if, upon Emily’s return to Digg, she started using Digg for something other than pimping VVM stories? Just for Ryan, I pulled the stats. Here is a breakdown of the sites Emily has been Digging:

Domains of Emily Kaiser's Diggs

Here are the domains ranked by volume of Diggs. The sites from Gawker on down make up the Other slice of the pie, having receiving one Digg each:


Ryan, I don’t know about you, but to me this wreaks of being asked to do something but receiving no training on how to do it right (assuming it’s right to do it at all rather than focusing on creating great content).

CityPages Can’t Get Enough Cheap Digg Traffic

Back on Feb 5th, I posted a story about how Village Voice Media’s various online properties work together to cross-promote each other’s stories on Digg. That happened to be the same day that CityPages’ Emily Kaiser stopped using Digg.

Emily Kaiser's Diggs by Day to Date

At least that was the short-term case. Two months later, she Dugg two things, took another month off, and is now back in the gaming game.

Emily Kaiser's Diggs by Month

Village Voice Media lost their national ringleader for this type of activity, Keith Plocek back in April. You may remember him as the dude that pretended to be a girl on Digg to increase page views on VVM properties.

But after some regrouping, it looks like VVM is back to its old tricks on Digg, seeking out as much drive-by traffic as they can get to their reblogged stories from other news sites.

What confuses me about this strategy is the following snippet from Kelsey Group where Village Voice Media’s COO, Scott Tobias attempts to explain the value VVM properties provide:

“National Web efforts have been decimated by the digital networks,” he says. That makes it hard to leverage the strong demographic appeal that targeted media sites still do better than anyone else.

It’s hard to tell for sure whether it’s Mr. Tobias or Kelsey’s author, Peter Krasilovsky, who’s describing the “strong demographic appeal” that VVM’s properties provide. VVM’s digital strategy seems to be based on passing through as much cheap traffic as possible from Digg rather than building large, loyal, local audiences. Perhaps that’s what advertisers are looking for, but it seems to be out of line with how VVM positions itself in other channels such as print, where they really do have large, local, local audiences.

CityPages Complains About Plagiarism?

This is interesting. CityPages is complaining about a publication, One Nation News, lifting stories from CityPages (A-List, specifically) then putting their own name on it.

Minneapolis/st. Paul – City Pages – The Blotter – One Nation News: All the plagiarism fit to copy and paste

Last Sunday, I received a concerned email from a longtime freelancer for City Pages. She had received a forwarded email from One Nation News, a website dedicated to covering minority issues and interests in the state of Minnesota. Imagine her surprise when she saw her A List word for word in the newsletter with Joe Johnson in the byline. “What should I do? The guy even signed his name to it,” she lamented.

While I support their beef with One Nation News, it also reminds me of CityPages’ own issues with intellectual property swiping, such as this, and this from October along with this from February.

Born-again IP respecters?

Well, not necessarily born-again. What’s the deal with this unattributed photo of a steak at Manny’s? According to the original photo on Flickr, it belongs to a science teacher from Chicago who snapped the snot one year ago today.

How the Government Saved Backpage.com

Some state attorney generals bucking for a promotion have been attacking a website, Craigslist, that allows people to advertise items and services they sell for free. Apparently, that’s okay unless the thing the seller wants to sell is their own body.

Craigslist has caved to some of the AGs demands, including shutting down their notorious erotic services category.

Clearly, that didn’t make prostitution go away, so what’s the fall-out? Have the AGs put an end to (or even slowed down the popularity of) prostitution, thus earning Puritan credibility and a a shot at a run for governor among puritan voters?

Here’s what I see:

1. People looking to sell themselves on Craigslist will shift to other categories, polluting non-sexual services classifieds categories with innuendo-laden ads.

2. Some sellers will shift to other sites that continue to provide a platform for erotic advertising, such as CityPages.com’s backpage.com site.

3. Non-Craigslist publishers will profit from the changes. Check out how flaccid Backpage.com’s traffic (the brand used by Village Voice Media for their largely sex-populated classifieds) was before Craigslist dropped their erotic services category:

Backpage.com Traffic Trend

Backpage.com’s traffic got a double shot of Viagra when Craigslist stopped providing a venue for free advertisements. This also provides some perspective on how much of backpage’s traffic is sex-industry driven compared to garage sale announcements. To drive home how sex-dependent Backpage.com is, here are the top-10 non-branded (terms that include company names) search terms that drove traffic to Backpage.com over the last month according to Compete.com:

1. shemale escorts in nj
2. craigslist
3. buffalo escorts
4. revolving tradelines
5. latinas massage in houston
6. raleigh gfe
7. dallas classifieds
8. seattle escorts
9. facebook of sex
10. www.escorts in mass

(What’s up with New Jersey?)

Backpage.com, unlike Craigslist, has been in the business of profiting from prostitution by charging for ads in their various adult classifieds categories for years. They’re also less discrete about their classifieds offerings, search engine optimizing their way to the #1 position on Google for many city-specific escort searches:

Minneapolis Escorts - Backpage Optimization

Looking for escorts? Backpage.com profits from being a classifieds gateway while Craigslist provided the same service for free. Why state attorney generals decided that Craigslist is the enemy isn’t entirely clear.

Strangely, the actions taken by many of our country’s state attorney generals may lead to Craigslist profiting from prostitution as well. After shutting down their erotic services category, they opened up a new adult category where they charge for ads. Since November, they’ve charged advertisers for ads placed in their erotic services category but gave the money to charities designed to help people get out of the industry. However, as I understand it, that doesn’t apply to the newly formed category.

If the AGs goal was to actually help people working in the sex industry, they could have simply called or emailed the people advertising on Craigslist. But that would involve social work, which probably isn’t a priority of the attorney general’s office, where they’re more interested in looking for criminal angles rather than social problems.

It seems like the state AGs have whacked a mole on this one.

LikeMe.net’s Disastrous Reviews Continue

File this under, “you simply can’t make this stuff up.”

CityPages and LikeMe.net are now sending out emails that tell users “What’s Hot” around town. As I’ve explained before, the results provided by LikeMe.net are highly biased since they’re generated by the ad sales department at CityPages. However, they’re even more biased than I previously suspected. Take a look at what business is the hottest business in town:

LikeMe.net What's Hot

Yes, that’s correct, it’s CityPages! And there is CityPages’ MaggieC telling us how great the company that pays her is.

And take a look at the second review. Yes, that’s the plagiarized review of J.D. Hoyt’s that I pointed out a full month ago. It’s still on the site.

CityPages Body Count: Staff Update

CityPages got around to updating their staff directory on Friday night. Was it black Friday at CityPages, or did they simply get around to updating their outdated roster?

Some of the names removed have been gone from the paper for quite some time such as cheap eats food writer Jim Norton who was shown the door at the end of 2008.

Here are the people and former titles of those who are now gone from the roster:

Advertising Account Executive: Kattie Swartz

Web Intern: Michelle Leon

Classified Account Executive: Amanda Almich
Classified Account Executive: Jorge Raasch
Classified Account Executive: Teace Sothiphahnak
Classified Coordinator: Tracie Garcia

Staff Writer: Jonathan Kaminsky
Staff Writer: Quinton Skinner
Staff Writer: Beth Walton
Assistant A-List Editor: Ben Palosaari
Listings Coordinator: Nate Patrin
Contributing Writer: James Norton

Front Desk Coordinator: Sandra Fuchs

Production / Information Systems
Assistant Production Manager: Dana Graham

Looks like they’re down 14 since the last time they updated their roster. Additionally, Paul Schmelzer reported earlier this week at the Minnesota Independent that CityPages has also made cuts to their freelance music and food blogging budgets.

The classifieds department appears to have felt the most pain, with its staff dwindling to half it’s former size. Is Craigslist to blame?

Strangely, some active writers are missing from the staff page, such as Emily Kaiser, Judd Spicer, a Erin Carlyle, who all published to the Blotter as recently as yesterday. However, they weren’t in the directory before the roster shake-up either, so it’s not clear to me why their roles aren’t recognized by the paper. They publish under their own names but aren’t staff or contributing writers?

CityPages Crawls Even Deeper Into Bed with Advertisers on LikeMe.net

As I mentioned on Tuesday, CityPages Sales Operations Manager, (EmilyN), Emily Neumann actually copy/paste plagiarized one of the paragraphs of her fake review directly from JD Hoyt’s website.

Since then, in a hysterically offensive twist, it appears that Emily or someone else at CityPages / Village Voice Media decided to clean up that mess. How did they clean it up? By removing Emily’s writing and leaving the plagiarized content from JD Hoyt’s:

JD Hoyt's Review

I’m impressed by CityPages’ “We simply do not care about our readers” attitude they’ve illustrated through this action. I couldn’t have predicted this in a million years.

Is this situation unique to EmilyN, or has CityPages now adopted a strategy of “just use the advertiser’s description” review strategy?

It certainly scales better. You wouldn’t have to actually visit any of the restaurants. Just find their website, copy, paste, and you’re set. You don’t even have to have an opinion.