In Minnesota, a state struggling to fight the flow of human trafficking through its borders, law enforcement and victim advocates are cautiously optimistic that this week’s indictment of Backpage.com owner Carl Ferrer will significantly curb online prostitution.
Ferrer, the CEO of the classified ad website long criticized for its enabling of underage prostitution, was charged in California with multiple felony counts of conspiracy to commit pimping and pimping minors. Prosecutors say that nearly all of the website’s income comes from its “adult” section, which typically features ads with nude photos and offers a menu of sex explained in coded language.
Local efforts have seen varying success at fencing in Backpage. In southwestern Minnesota, an operation involving the website led to 48 arrests around New Ulm and Mankato.
While many authorities see the charges against Ferrer as a huge victory, at least one expert sex crimes investigator fears it could hamper the relationship law enforcement has with Backpage.
“Backpage is the only online marketplace that has worked with law enforcement to identify exploitive ads and rapidly gives us information so we can help victims,” said Minneapolis police Sgt. Grant Snyder, who has investigated dozens of cases involving the website. “They won’t be closing up shop just because their CEO was put in handcuffs.”
The FBI has identified the Twin Cities as one of 13 U.S. metropolitan communities with a high incidence of human trafficking and child prostitution. This week, the U.S. attorney’s office announced indictments in a massive international sex trafficking ring involving several Minnesotans. The alleged traffickers used Backpage.com to advertise the victims.
Backpage has faced accusations in various jurisdictions of engaging in sex trafficking, including trafficking of children, and hundreds of trafficking cases across the country have been linked to the site. This is the first time that criminal charges have been brought against the company or its executives, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said in a statement.
“Websites like Backpage.com facilitate sex trafficking across Minnesota and our country,” Klobuchar said. “With these crimes happening in our own neighborhoods and communities, the arrest of Ferrer is another step forward in the fight against sex trafficking. We need to keep working together to bring perpetrators to justice and to get victims the support they deserve.”
Klobuchar‘s bipartisan legislation, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, was signed into law in May. The legislation was modeled after Minnesota’s “Safe Harbor” law, which gives incentives for all states to have a safe harbor provision to help ensure minors who are sold for sex aren’t prosecuted as defendants, but are instead treated as victims.
The act also assists victims in rebuilding their lives by using fines and penalties against perpetrators to improve the availability of victim services. She also helped develop a recent law that requires training for certain airline industry employees to recognize and report suspected human trafficking to law enforcement.
The charges against Ferrer came from the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Investigators focused on revenue generated from California, which accounted for about 15 percent of the company’s global income, according to court papers. Backpage had a gross income of about $51 million during a 29-month period starting in January 2013.
Authorities found numerous instances in which the company received fees from ads for escorts under age 18. Ferrer was taken in custody in Houston after arriving on a flight from Amsterdam.
Backpage has long been under fire. In 2012, Village Voice Media, then-owner of City Pages, cut ties with the website over the controversy. The Star Tribune now owns the local alternative weekly.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who is president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, said the group discussed Backpage at its meetings and heard rumors about charges against Ferrer.
“We all presumed these guys were pimping themselves and wrapping up these ads in the First Amendment,” he said. “To have a chance to put these people away is a good thing for the public.”
Freeman now wonders whether prosecutors could go after the corporation behind the website and its vast financial resources. He and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi have strategized in ways to go after Backpage. But the biggest hurdle is express provisions in federal law that give third-party publishers immunity from civil and criminal action at the state level, Choi said.
“We have lobbied Congress in an attempt to get this law changed because it prevents us from enforcing state trafficking laws in such cases,” he said. “For five years, Backpage has been told by law enforcement and elected officials that the website is a problem. But they continue and persist because they believe the law is on their side.”
Like Choi and Freeman, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said the charges against Ferrer should have a significant impact by disrupting the website’s activities. She’s seen Backpage’s devastation firsthand when she recently spent time at shelters and with street outreach workers and legal advocates. Without fail, they all mentioned the website, she said.
With the Super Bowl coming to Minneapolis in 2018, the timing for the possible demise of the website is welcome news to Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. Backpage is the premiere proprietor of underage sex trafficking and the place that law enforcement knows where people go for this kind of activity, he said.
“I’m afraid another site will step up to fill the void if Backpage gets shut down, but law enforcement will be diligent to go after the next site,” he said.
The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has invested $5 million in housing and trauma counseling for trafficking survivors, and to change laws and work with investigators for better results in dealing with the crime. Now, the focus needs to be on how to end the demand, said Terry Williams, the group’s vice president of strategic initiatives.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, but we were thrilled the charges finally happened,” she said.
Snyder said he knows people see Backpage as everything that’s wrong in terms of profiting from exploitation. But at the same time, other social media sites and cellphone providers have been unwilling to cooperate with law enforcement, “and they are being just as exploitative as Backpage,” he said.
“I’m concerned that Backpage was selectively targeted,” he said. “I think it’s a long shot that the website will be shut down, and it’s possible they will just stop responding to our requests.”