After the recent closing of Backpage.com, a hub for the commercial sex slave trade, trafficking victims could be in greater danger than before, according to a trafficking expert.
“[Backpage has] been cooperative with anti-trafficking efforts. They responded to subpoenas and facilitated investigations. There is no empirical evidence or criminological theory to suggest that Backpage facilitated prostitution, much less sex trafficking” Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an expert in the field, told The Crime Report.
“While the internet as a whole has made the sale of sex easier, Backpage didn’t facilitate anything any more than any other website or social media platform.”
Mehlman-Orozco, author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” currently serves as a human trafficking witness for criminal cases.
Last Friday, Backpage was seized by the U.S. government and shut down.
Visitors to the site are now greeted with a notice announcing the seizure, saying it was a joint action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the International Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, reports The Cut.
The FBI has also raided the Sedona, Arizona, home of the site’s founder, Michael Lacey.
This seizure and raid comes on the heels of the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). The bills, both ostensibly meant to protect sex-trafficking victims, have been widely criticized by sex workers who believe they’ll threaten their ability to work safely.
Lacey, 69, who co-founded the online classified advertising site Backpage, was charged as part a 93-count indictment that remained sealed late Friday, according to Lacey’s lawyer, Larry Kazan.
Authorities had spent months probing whether the website served as a willing participant in the online sale of sex, including with underage girls.
According to Mehlman-Orozco, this was a mistake.
Expert Mehlman-Orozco is a fierce advocate for using Backpage as a way to catch human traffickers.
She noted police engaged in concentrated surveillance of the site, much like the way they would police a crime hotspot on the street. Backpage administrators were cooperative with these investigations, which further facilitated rescues and arrests.
But without the popular website to direct law enforcement straight to the ads of young girls being trafficked, where will the sex slave trade go?
To the dark web, Mehlman-Orozco argued.
Now the sex slave trade, an already clandestine crime, will move to even more remote corners of the internet and social media, making it more difficult for authorities to find and prosecute traffickers.
Consequently, it will be even more difficult to rescue victims of sex trafficking.
While Mehlman-Orozco believes human trafficking will remain on the internet, it will be displaced to websites that are password protected and accessed through peer to peer referral.
And unlike Backpage, administrators of internationally hosted websites may not necessarily comply with authorities, she said.
See also: Hunting the Internet’s Sex Predators
Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.