Online classfieds: Who is responsible?

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Kai Ryssdal: It's the rare media company that can afford to give up advertising revenue in this day and age, but that is what's being asked of the Village Voice. Attorneys general from 21 states have asked the Voice's Backpage.com to drop its adult services section. A couple of weeks ago Craigslist closed its adult section. The government's not getting the same kind of cooperation this time.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler explains.


Village Voice: Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal wants Backpage.com to discontinue classified ads for adult services.

Richard Blumenthal: The adult services sections are little more than online brothels in many instances.

His office estimates that Village Voice Media -- which owns Backpage.com -- makes more than $17 million a year from adult services ads.

Blumenthal: They are big money makers for these sites. And we're asking the sites to put people before profits.

Unlike Craigslist, Backpage.com says it won't stop the ads. In a written response, the company says it's operating legally and assists law enforcement with prosecutions.

Ryan Calo is with the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

Ryan Calo: It's pretty clear that the courts have spoken on this issue and there's no legal recourse. A website like Backpage.com will not be held responsible for what users do on the website.

Calo says ending the adult services ads might backfire.

Calo: It may be harder to police, to the extent that it's harder for law enforcement to set up traps, it's harder for the websites themselves to monitor for illegal content. It may make the situation worse.

But critics of the ads point out that they're frequently used in trafficking children for sexual purposes.

Linda Smith is president of the rescue organization Shared Hope International. It did a four-year investigation of the trafficking of children.

Linda Smith: Practically every minor that we dealt with was marketed repeatedly, city by city. It has become the marketplace for these children.

There are no hard numbers for the child sex industry, but Smith estimates it's in the billions.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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