News Corp Australia

The website getting away with trafficking children

THE layout of Backpage.com is as basic as it gets but behind the bland black and blue text is a sophisticated operation.

What at face value appears to be a website trapped in the 1990s is in fact leaps and bounds ahead of those chasing it. It's advantages are two-fold.

First, it has gained and maintained a reputation as the one place where, at any time of day or night, young women can be found "seeking sex with men". Most of those women are actually girls who have been abducted, recruited or seduced into a world they never wanted to be a part of.

Second, Backpage.com has the law on its side. For years, it has operated in broad daylight, offering trafficked girls for sale with impunity, thanks in large part to a legal shield - Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the United States protects internet companies from liability for the content posted by its users.

That might be about to change. Right now, the tide is turning against the operators of Backpage.com. Its CEO and former owners are facing charges including pimping and conspiracy, a grand jury probe is about to get underway and plaintiff after plaintiff is coming forward, sharing stories of being strung along between seedy motel rooms and even seedier men.

They're telling the world: "This can't happen to anybody else." And the world is finally starting to listen.

'SHE SNUCK OUT AND FOUND HERSELF IN A ROOM WITH TWO MEN'

The outcomes are almost always the same, even if the stories differ slightly.

For victims of institutionalised sex trafficking via Backpage.com click-throughs, most started their journey there with a simple meeting.

Mary Mazzio met and spoke with a number of them for a new documentary titled I am Jane Doe. The film was released last week.

The former lawyer-turned-filmmaker discovered that some were taken from the street, others were "recruited" by people who promised them modelling deals but most thought they'd met somebody special online, only to discover the opposite.

She refers to the girls as "Jane Doe", a reference to an anonymous party in a lawsuit, but most of the girls claiming they were raped and trafficked are identifying themselves in the process.

"One Jane Doe I met snuck out of school for a party and six hours later was on Backpage.com." Ms Mazzio told news.com.au.

"Another thought she was going to a party and found herself alone in a room with two men who took turns raping her."

Both were trafficked via the classifieds website.

"They're prayed upon online. (Sometimes) it's a new friend, normally a boyish looking adult," Ms Mazzio said.

"Almost every victim that I spoke with that was recruited that way, they were recruited for six months. They thought it was a first boyfriend and then the fangs came out."

Online, the same girls appeared in ads alongside a carefully constructed sequence of codewords alerting those seeking high school-aged girls for sex that "yes, you've come to the right place".

Some of those words included "fresh", "new", "new to town" or "off the boat".

'BACKPAGE WAS FACILITATING THE SALE OF CHILDREN'

Ms Mazzio believes Backpage.com's ability to carry on operating as usual is "a collective failing of all of us".

But she reserves her harshest judgments for the internet company behind the site and for the judicial system.

She says Backpage.com not only knows what's happening but takes an active role in ensuring it continues.

"There was a damning Senate report two weeks ago that revealed some extraordinary facts," Ms Mazzio said.

"It was the existence of pre-filters that was one of the most shocking things. If (a user) had the term 'Amber Alert' in an ad, Backpage.com scrubbed the term but still posted the ad, meaning they were knowingly facilitating the sale of a child."

The term "Amber Alert" in the US refers to a nationwide alert for a missing child under the age of 18.

Ms Mazzio says Backpage.com still fails to do enough to prevent the practice. The company reports to an authority each month 500 ads they deem suspicious. An email from Backpage.com reveals the company capped the number at 500. Ms Mazzio says that's bad news for victim 501.

"What does that mean for them? Or for victim 708 or 1002? What happened to those children?"

'THIS IS NOT PRETTY WOMAN'

Those who are victimised live with the scars forever, the filmmaker explains.

"The trauma that happens in shattering. It's person-breaking. If you think about what one sexual assault will do over the course of a lifetime to a person, imagine what happens when you multiply that 8-10 times a day. Violence, branding, the dehumanisation. The PTSD they experience is akin to that of a war veteran that sees bloody, extreme, sustained combat."

She said the worst part is that victims blame themselves.

"The self blame is universal, all the victims believe they deserved it because they snuck out of a room but I can tell you that not one of them signed up for the repeated rape they experienced."

"We as a nation have been led to think this crime is consensual. That it's Pretty Woman. That is simply not the case. None of these children were given any money, let's be clear about that."

She said similar crimes are happening all over the world, on other sites, too.

"Here's what I hope: I hope our project will make people aware that this is not a third world problem. That this is happening in Australia and in the UK and in every city and every town and it's hidden in plain sight. It's happening in numbers and frequency that would make your head spin."

Toby Dagg from the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner told news.com.au his team had not encountered "much in the way of complaints about services like Backpage or Craigslist" but that's doesn't mean it's not happening.

"We've seen nothing in the way of online classifieds trafficking children for sex (but that's) not to say that the sexual exploitation of children via these sources is not an issue in Australia".

Ms Mazzio is watching closely in the US as those behind Backpage.com are forced to answer some tough questions. She's inspired by the victims and their families who are finally speaking up.

"The people leading this charge have been the mothers and the Jane Doe children," she said. "This is their story and their voice. This is them standing up and at great personal risk."

News Corp Australia


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