The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) isn't the only high-powered entity looking into the business practices of Backpage.com, the online site accused of being a party to the sex-trafficking of minors via its worldwide classified ads.
For the last three years, award-winning documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio—a former Olympic athlete and attorney from Boston—has been researching the issue. She spent the last 13 months interviewing people involved in the story, ranging from trafficking victims, their parents and lawyers to former Backpage employees, U.S. senators, federal agents, and even former pimps and johns.
In her new film, I Am Jane Doe, which opened in select theaters nationwide on Feb. 10, Mazzio lays out the history of the Web site from its beginnings as part of the revered Village Voice national alternative newspaper group, the revenue it's made from online sex ads and the harm those ads have wreaked on underage girls and their families. And most importantly, how courts so far have consistently interpreted Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to protect Backpage's owners from prosecution. The film will be available through iTunes and OnDemand beginning on May 15 and through Netflix starting May 31.
"You've got federal judges involved in this, saying Section 230 precludes any action to hold Backpage accountable. That law was intended to incentivize online portals to filter for obscenity and defamatory content, but not to go out of business if they missed some posts," Mazzio tells Citizen. "I firmly believe many of these judges don't know what human sex trafficking involving children means in this culture. Some of these children are branded. Some are tattooed, burned, stabbed, raped repeatedly. It's pretty horrific.
"If you want to sell a couch on Backpage, I don't care. If you want to sell yourself on Backpage, I don't care. If you want to sell a child on Backpage—now I do care, and we're going to have a conversation about this."
If you'd have asked Mazzio four years ago what she knew about sex trafficking, she'd have told you it was a problem for other people, in countries far, far away. Or if it happened in the U.S., it only happened to "troubled kids who hang around bus stations."
Until a friend gave her a copy of the book Renting Lacy: A Story of America's Prostituted Children (2009), written by Shared Hope International President Linda Smith, a former congresswoman from Washington—and Mazzio's eyes were opened.
A year later, she read an article in The Boston Globe about three local girls who were suing Backpage in federal court for the harm done to them as their traffickers used Backpage to sell their bodies to strangers—up to 20 times a day. And while the traffickers were being prosecuted for the crime of selling underage children for sex, Backpage was not.
"I realized this is the time, this is the moment," Mazzio tells Citizen. "There were a lot of films that had come out about trafficking, but I had yet to see a film about child sex trafficking and the legality of allowing people to post online ads selling children.
"This is an opportunity to talk about a very dark subject in a way that makes it understandable. With technology, you have increased profitability, increased efficiency and also increased harm. To what extent should (Web site operators) be responsible for that harm? What pieces of culpability do you bear? Reasonable people will disagree, but certainly we have to ask the question."
According to the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer to that question was none. The justices opined that even though the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act had clearly been violated in the case of the three Boston girls, Section 230's protections for Internet freedom trumped those considerations.
"Almost all the lawsuits around Section 230 involve defamation. This Backpage case is one of the few to involve alleged criminal conduct," Mazzio explains. "These girls weren't defamed. They were actively bought and sold. If Backpage, in fact, encouraged or facilitated these sales, they ought to bear some responsibility for the harm, and these children should be able to litigate that issue.
"The old media gets hit with defamation lawsuits all the time, and they don't get to have those lawsuits automatically dismissed. They have to show up and litigate them. But New Media gets a free ride when it comes to third-party content. Now Section 230 is being expanded to cover what could be willful participation. So we have to take a step back and ask if Congress intended this law to protect alleged criminal activity."
That question becomes even more salient when you consider Backpage's share of the online sex-ad market: According to the PSI report, it's 80 percent.
And how many underage trafficking victims are featured in those ads? According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 15,000 reports received on its tip line every year involve Backpage. Anecdotal evidence suggests the percentage could be even higher. When Citizen asked FACESS (Freeing American Children from Exploitation and Sexual Slavery)—a faith-based nonprofit in California that runs a rehabilitation center for rescuees—how many of the girls on its campus had been sold through Backpage, the answer was simple.
"Every single one."
BACK TO THE FAMILY
Mazzio's interview subjects, as mentioned above, are a well-rounded group. Among them are many of the Jane Does who were sold through Backpage and who, along with their families, later sued the site for damages – M.A. from St. Louis (and her mother, Kubiiki Pride); five girls in Seattle; and three in Boston.
One of the families most prominently featured, both in the film and in the PSI hearings on Backpage's business practices, is J.S., along with her parents, Tom and Nacole, who don't use their last name. Along with the other Seattle girls, their state-level case is the only one against Backpage that's still moving forward. As this issue of Citizen went to press, it was tentatively scheduled for a jury trial with a May 22 start date.
With her crystal-clear skin, bright blue eyes and thick auburn hair, J.S., now 22, looks like anything but a trafficking victim. But her story goes to show how this can happen to any kind of family, anywhere, at any time.
"We were the family that said nothing good happens after 11 p.m., so that's when you need to be home," Nacole tells Citizen. "We used soccer and violin as social outlets for our children. The computer was in the living room; we thought we were doing all those protective things.
But when her older brother moved across the country to start college, 15-year-old J.S. had a teenage identity crisis and decided to run away from home. She hopped on a city bus and found her way to a local homeless shelter, where a trafficker spotted her immediately.
In the 10 days she was gone, she was raped and sold on the streets of Seattle 200 times. She managed to escape long enough to tell a police officer what was happening, and was returned to Tom and Nacole.
"Then we walked around the house for three months with an elephant in the room," Nacole recalls. "We tried to solve things through our church group. But we didn't know she'd come home with a cell phone and was still in touch with someone she'd met on the street. They lured her out of the house. "The second time, she was gone 108 days, and within 36 hours, she was being sold on Backpage."
Though Nacole and Tom were savvy enough to search Craigslist for ads featuring their daughter, they were unaware of Backpage at the time. It wasn't until J.S. was recovered for good and her trafficker was on trial that they learned about it—courtesy of a Seattle Weekly reporter who called their unlisted home phone seeking comment. Seattle Weekly was acquired by Village Voice Media Holdings in 2006.
"That was the very first time I put Backpage.com, Village Voice Media and Seattle Weekly all together, when I read that story," Nacole recalls. "And that's when I realized this reporter actually worked for the company that sold my daughter.
"That's when I became a tiger."
So she started talking to politicians—first local, and later at the state level. She lobbied for bills. She picked up a phone book and began systematically calling lawyers, seeking anyone willing to take her family's case against Backpage to court. And she didn't stop until she found one: Erik Bauer, a Tacoma attorney who cut his professional teeth defending alleged murderers in death-penalty cases.
Bauer goes about his legal practice the cowboy way: He doesn't work out of a big office, he doesn't mince words—and he certainly doesn't stand on ceremony.
"Backpage has been very successful in getting cases dismissed very early on when all the court has is allegations, no real evidence. They win right and left doing that," he tells Citizen. "But the best evidence in the world is the ads themselves. Just look at the ads, and you can tell what's going on."
So when Bauer filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Seattle girls five years ago, he simply included some of the salacious ads showing exactly what was being sold in Backpage's adult-services section. More than a thousand of them, actually.
"No one ever does that," he says. "Our clerk's office was so upset!"
BACK TO COURT—AND CONGRESS
Last December, Bauer’s team had the opportunity to take depositions from owner Carl Ferrer and other Backpage employees.
"All they did was plead the Fifth (Amendment) all day long. In a civil case, there's a legal presumption the answer to the question would be in your detriment," Bauer recalls. "So we had fun thinking of questions we could ask, like, 'Mr. Ferrer, you've personally used child prostitutes advertised on Backpage, haven't you?' I hereby plead the Fifth Amendment.' We were asking how often they deal with organized crime, just everything. They didn't like us very much. They had a bad day that day."
It wasn't the last time Backpage's owners would plead the Fifth: All five of the executives who were summoned to testify before the PSI about their business practices on Jan. 10 did so, approximately 12 hours after shutting down the Adult section of their site and issuing a statement promising to pursue the matter in federal court. Subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said afterward he's considering a bill to close the "loophole" in Section 230 that's allowed online trafficking to take place in the open so far. At press time, those activities were taking place in Backpage's Dating section.
"I don't think there ever has been a loophole," Bauer says. "I think we have some real incompetent courts that have read a loophole into the law. If Ford produces a Pinto that explodes upon impact, we sue Ford for making a bad product that harms people. But here we have that with a Web site, and we're letting them go after they allow 20 guys a day to have sex with a seventh-grader.
"It's not nice, it's not sexy, these are not attractive people. And you're just a seventh-grade kid. It's not OK. It's not a legitimate business. And it's got to stop."
Nacole is committed to sharing her family's tale as many times as it takes to see that happen.
"I hope that hearing stories like ours from across the country, seeing the human cost—the family cost—that (Congress will) see a way to change it," she says. "We don't have to rewrite the whole CDA. We just need crafty people who do this all the time to put some language in there, maybe a sentence or two, that will fix it. If we need the president to sign a bill saying you can't sell kids on the Internet, that's what we'll have to do. Hopefully it will be our voices they hear and we don't have to wait another 10 years before something changes."
It's been a long haul, and the family is tired. But Nacole thinks she can now see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"There are so many voices out there across the country that are saying the same thing," she says. "Knowledge is changing. The issue is changing. We're looking at these girls like victims instead of participants—so now is a good time.”
For more about this film, www.IamJaneDoeFilm.com