Natasha Curtis made four. All women. All found dead in car trunks in Detroit. Three of the four apparently advertised themselves as available for escort services on Backpage.com, a classified site owned by Village Voice Media.
There is no debating the human tragedy here. Voices are now demanding a forced shuttering of Backpage.com. Among them are loud calls from every state attorney-general and more clergy than you could shake a Bible at.
But that is no solution. Personally, I would applaud a decision by Village Voice Media to kill Backpage.com — but wishing it and trying to force it via courts are two very different matters.
There is a precedent: In September 2010, after its implication in murders andmore, Craigslist pulled the plug on sex advertising. At the time, the New York Times reported that blacking out that category cost Craigslist around $44 million in annualized revenues.
Now it is Backpage.com‘s turn in the crosshairs of public ire. Its ads cost $5 apiece, by the way, and as per reporting by the Detroit Free Press, in the last 12 months it pulled in $24.3 million. It now is said to be the “leading” site for sex ads, as per the AIM Group, which ranks such things.
Backpage.com‘s problems go beyond Detroit, horrendous as those murders are. In Tennessee, for instance, a 15-year-old Memphis runaway stumbled into the hands of a pimp, Marvell Antonio Culp, who apparently took “provocative” photos of her and slapped up an ad on Backpage.com, reports The Commercial Appeal.
In Seattle recently, a 26-year-old creep pled guilty to extorting sex — he pretended to be a cop — from two 15-year-old girls whose ads he found on (you guessed correctly) Backpage.com.
A glance at my local Backpage.comNorth Jersey pages informs me that I am in the midst of a sexual souk, with escorts, body rubs, “adult jobs,” TS (no, I do not know what it means), and much more all close by.
Is this pornography? Obscene? Criminal?
Much as we may snigger at Backpage.com, shutting it down would be akin to killing a cockroach on a midtown New York kitchen countertop. One might feel good for an instant about killing one roach, but then there are the thousands more lurking behind the wall. And there is nothing you could possibly do about it.
Backpage.com itself delved into exactly this quagmire when it issued a reporttracking 70 different escort ads on 22 Websites that it says are linked to the four dead Detroit women.
That is the rub: “Putting Backpage out of business will accomplish absolutely nothing,” says Connecticut lawyer Norm Pattis. He adds: “This is the year of the attack on the Internet. I expect more attacks.”
The attacks, Pattis says, will do nothing to protect women such as the Detroit four. “Take the Backpage ads down and it accomplishes nothing. Sellers and buyers will continue to find each other.”
That is the thing: Shutter Backpage.com, and even find a way to close all its US competitors, and as soon as you can say “Kiev,” a similar Website will pop up in a country that has no scruples about what Americans sell each other, as long as those Americans pay with hard currency for their advertisements. And there is no stopping the flow of sex ads from locations unknown.
Our only choice is to live with these ads.
“We have free speech in this country,” says criminology scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of New York-based watchdog group American Center for Democracy. She points out that “child pornography is illegal” — that is, there are clear routes to attempting to protect victims such as the Tennessee girl — but otherwise the Constitution sometimes will leave us with messes.
“There are many things I wish weren’t on the Internet — but we cannot limit it. You either are for free speech or you are not,” says Ehrenfeld.
It is really that simple. Shutting down Backpage.com would be an assault on the Internet freedoms we all enjoy.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.