If you've ever Googled "Backpage.com", particularly under the News heading, then you're aware that the conversation surrounding the classifieds website is unpleasant and disheartening. The gist of the issue is that Backpage has allowed ads that have been associated with trafficking (I heard an expert presenting on the state of trafficking in America say that you can order a child prostitute on Backpage as easily as you could order a pizza - so far from justice). The site itself is essentially a classifieds page, hence the website title, and it functions relatively similarly to Craig's List.
Seeing is believing, so to substantiate the claims I'd heard, I visited the website. I wasn't willing to do too much digging around because lewd and awful things are too easy to find on the internet. Sure enough, right across the page from places to advertise yard sales, childcare needs, musician jobs, and house rentals, there's an "adult" section.
The things listed under there, such as "strippers," "body rubs," and "escorts," are bright red flags. It seems that wherever an industry brushes up against sex in any way, there is a problem with coercion and abuse, and this is no exception.
The current news story about Backpage is centered around a lawsuit: teens brought a lawsuit against the website, alleging that they had been trafficked through it. Their story is not unlike the story of hundreds of thousands of other minors. The judge in Boston dismissed the lawsuit and was supported by other digital rights advocates and online media companies, saying that to charge Backpage would be to limit freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression?
In an article by Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times when the case was first made, one of the girls who was sold on Backpage said this:
“When on Backpage, I was advertised in the same way as a car or a phone, but with even less value than a bike. Men would view their options, and if I seemed like the best one, they would call.”
Generously, this group is not seeking to close down the entire website, seemingly not wanting revenge for what was done to them (one of the girls estimates that she was raped 1,000 times) but wanting to end the gross exploitation that has been going on.
Protecting freedoms is important, but it's also important that we gauge which freedoms are more important when more than one is at stake. When a person's (especially a child's!) right to be free from the grip of another person, to be free from rape, to be free from being sold as though they had no value is at stake, we must choose to place that before the right to say what we want. Censorship is not even a part of this conversation, as no person has a right to infringe upon the freedoms of another (which is why we're not allowed to murder).
Kristoff quotes the case against Backpage as saying that the website has “perfected a business model that profits substantially from aiding and participating with pimps and traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children.”
We must stand up against these horrible injustices in our society. Kristoff called for the same, months ago, and his complete article makes a strong case against Backpage.
As the case is now in the appeals process, we hope that another judge will have the decency to see what is truly at stake here and act.