Authorities in Stillwater, Mn., have rescued five sex-trafficking victims aged 13 through 17 in recent months by combing through classified ads for “escorts” on Backpage.com, reports the Wall Street Journal. Clues in photos accompanying ads were sometimes obvious, officials said: teddy bears, toys, stuffed animals. With more than 20,000 escort ads appearing on Backpage this year for the Minneapolis-St. Paul area alone, officials figure they miss many trafficked children. “We’re just culling the herd, taking the easy ones,” said Peter Orput, the Washington County Attorney, who calls Backpage a “dystopian hell.”
Orput may owe his heartbreaking work in part to federal law and Silicon Valley. Over the roughly six years since Backpage became notorious for escort ads that often appear to be thinly veiled prostitution solicitations, the site has deflected multiple legal and political attacks, shielded by the First Amendment and a 20-year-old U.S. law designed to foster the internet back in its infancy. Backpage has also found allies among major internet associations and tech companies that worry legal and legislative challenges to the site could breach their own protections. “These are really important battles to preserve the policy framework that supports all internet companies,” Emma Llanso, an official at internet-freedom group Center for Democracy and Technology, said of fending off legal attacks on Backpage. It was among groups filing briefs supporting Backpage in several suits and arguing to Congress against proposed escort-ad regulations.