Girls Sold for Sex Online, Backpage Defends Decision to Keep Ads Up

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"I don't believe Craigslist did the right thing," she said. "And it would be the wrong thing for Backpage to take down its adult category. Because you are losing a key tool for law enforcement to get insights into this illicit activity, to get data, greater data than it's ever existed before, to locate, to identify the perpetrators, and to rescue victims."

Backpage makes money off these ads -- more than $20 million a year, according to AIM Group, an industry analysis firm. Backpage disputes that figure, but despite repeated requests from "Nightline," refused to provide numbers for how many escort ads get posted or how much revenue the company takes in from them.

"When there's this much money at stake, we think over $22 million a year, it's very easy to rationalize doing the wrong thing, to try to pretend that you're part of the solution when you're a problem," said Rob McKenna, the Washington state attorney general.

McKenna, a Republican who is also the head of the National Association of Attorneys General, has been leading the political charge to shut down the sex ads on Backpage.

"The idea that Backpage is somehow an ally of law enforcement is complete nonsense," he said. "They're actually allies of the pimps, of the traffickers. They're making it easy for men who exploit girls and women to get away with it."

But McDougall said what happened in the wake of Craigslist shutting down its prostitution ads is evidence that McKenna's strategy won't work. "Playing whack-a-mole, taking down an adult category from Craigslist and from Backpage, that is not the answer," she said.

McDougall is new on the job as Backpage's in-house counsel, a role she said she accepted only on the condition that she would be given free rein to address the problem of sex trafficking on the website.

"I've been on the job less than six weeks," she said. "Give me a chance and we are not going to lose this fight. I would love to see us eradicate sexual exploitation in the United States. I don't know if that's an achievable goal. But eradicating it online, I think is an achievable goal. And that's what I intend to lead the industry in doing."

Anti-trafficking advocates say both online classified and social networking sites have made ordering sex with a minor as easy as ordering a pizza. The cyber world provides johns with round-the-clock accessibility and provides pimps with an efficient, low-risk and anonymous method by which to recruit and sell women and children.

"[The Internet] can fuel the availability of prostitutes to a variety of individuals that wouldn't normally have it, or wouldn't normally go out to the street corner," said Sgt. Kyle Oki of the San Jose, Calif., Police Department's Human Trafficking Task Force.

"It's very easy for individuals to log onto the Internet, pull up Backpage or any variety of escort service sites, look at the picture, and call the number," he explained. "And as soon as you call it, you can make arrangements to meet with any girl you want."

Backpage is not the only website that sells classified escort ads; there are also Eros.com, CityVibe.com, Escorts.com, and MyRedbook.com, among others. But, according to AIM Group, when Craigslist famously shut down its escort ads in 2010 due to public pressure, Backpage quickly emerged as the market leader.

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