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After deaths in Detroit, Backpage.com advertising comes under scrutiny

Several women found dead in Detroit over the weekend had profiles on Backpage.com, a website offering escort services. The website has received attention before for a potential connection to illegal activity.

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Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee (c.) addresses the media, with investigator Charles Wilson (l.) and Asst. Police Chief Duane Blackmon about the similarities of the women found in the trunk of cars in Detroit this month, at Police Headquarters in Detroit, Mich., Monday. Three of four women recently found dead in Detroit car trunks had promoted themselves as escorts on Backpage.com.

Elizabeth Conley/The Detroit News/AP

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Four women in Detroit were found dead in two car trunks Sunday. Their connection to a website offering escort services is reviving an ongoing debate about the right of online media outlets to host advertising that many say enables criminal activity.

On Tuesday, Detroit police officials said they were pursuing warrants for Internet and cellphone records linked to the women. Three had profiles on Backpage.com, a controversial free classified service owned by Village Voice Media, which operates 13 weekly newspapers across the United States.

Steve Suskin, an attorney for Village Voice Media, confirmed in a statement that the police investigation involves advertising on Backpage.com. Village Voice Media is cooperating with police, Mr. Suskin also said.

However, this is not the first time that Backpage.com has been scrutinized for a connection to illegal activity – in particular, the sex trafficking of minors.

In August, 46 state attorneys general in the US sent Village Voice Media a letter requesting that it remove adult-services advertising from the website. “While Backpage.com professes to have undertaken efforts to limit advertisements for prostitution on its website, particularly those soliciting sex with children, such efforts have proven ineffective,” the letter read.

The attorneys general report that, over three years, they tracked more than 50 instances of charges filed that involved the trafficking minors on the website.

A month after the letter was sent, a coalition of clergy published a full-page ad in The New York Times requesting that Village Voice Media remove such advertising to prevent “compromising the lives of our nation’s boys and girls.”

Village Voice Media insists it has cooperated fully with law enforcement to prevent sex trafficking and says it is one of many sites that host adult advertising. The core of its argument is free speech: “Neither government officials nor God’s advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or speech,” it said in a statement.

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Websites like Backpage.com are protected under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, says Joe Obenberger, an attorney in Chicago who specializes in adult entertainment law. That act protects online operators from criminal wrongdoing even if the advertising they host promotes prostitution or other illegal acts, such as advertising under which housing discrimination is present.

In several instances, federal courts have upheld the law despite police concerns about safety. One notable example: an October 2009 decision in Chicago that struck down an attempt by Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart to hold Craigslist responsible for 156 prostitution arrests linked to postings on that website.

The Internet, Mr. Obenberger says, is no different from the phone company or other telecommunications services in that it is not responsible for how people use the technology.

“If people were liable for all the bad things the Internet was used for, criminally or civilly, it would be foolhardy for people to invest [in it], and the Internet would not grow,” he says.

What protects online sites like Backpage.com is that “for there to be a crime involving speech, there must be a close proximity between the speech and the criminal activity,” Obenberger says. Advertising for prostitution does not qualify under this standard, he says.

Backpage.com represents 30 to 35 percent of Village Voice Media’s annual revenue, reports The New York Times. The company benefited when Craigslist voluntarily removed its adult-services advertising in September 2010, after pressure from law-enforcement authorities.

According to the Advanced Interactive Media Group, which tracks interactive media and classified revenue, Backpage.com generated $2.1 million in revenue in November, a 16.7 percent increase from the same month one year prior. The website received 2.9 million unique visitors in November, an 11 percent jump from the previous year.

The website accounts for two-thirds of all prostitution advertising on the Web, according to Advanced Interactive Media, which defines prostitution advertising as that for escorts and body rubs.

Human rights advocates say that Village Voice Media has a responsibility to protect minors and that that their free-speech argument is not enough.

“If I tried to sell crack online through Backpage, the Village Voice would not stand up and say this is about the First Amendment,” Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights in Washington told The Daily Beast in October. “It’s convenient and politically easy for them to frame this as a free-speech issue, and it’s not.”

Others point out that online advertising creates records of transactions that can help law enforcement. The removal of such advertising might cause the trade to go underground, which would make it harder to protect vulnerable workers from coercion.

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