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A late-night drive along Lake Street in south Minneapolis used to be one of the ways police Sgt. Grant Snyder would start his investigations, scouring sidewalks and alleys for misguided and abused teenage girls turning tricks for a living.
Now, officers such as Snyder -- as well as potential johns -- can simply peruse the classified-ads website Backpage.com for girls like "Jordan." In one ad, she was described as a 19-year-old "natural blonde" with "curves in all the right places" and in another as the "Barbie every man should play with."
In reality, "Jordan" (also called "Madison" in one ad) was only 17. In January, police found her in a Roseville hotel room with her 34-year-old pimp, who last week was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
Although Snyder didn't handle that girl's case, he said every one of the more than 20 child sex-trafficking cases he has worked on this year had ties to Backpage.
In recent months, Backpage.com has become the focus of activists and authorities in the Twin Cities and nationwide who are demanding the closure of its adult-ad section.
"It's absolutely unconscionable that they are making money off of the selling of girls. ... Men can get a girl delivered to their door for sex more quickly, they're reporting, than they can get a pizza delivered," said Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota. "What does that say about our society?"
Village Voice Media, which own Backpage.com as well as several alternative weekly papers, including City Pages in the Twin Cities, says it has helped police rescue child sex-trafficking victims by responding to subpoenas and reporting content that could involve the exploitation of minors.
Posters on the website can easily and cheaply reach a broad audience by publishing ads, some of which are listed under "escorts" and "body rubs" and which often are accompanied by photos of scantily dressed girls.
While Backpage isn't the only website with adult ads, it's definitely the most popular, Snyder said. When conducting an investigation, "The very first place I'm going to go is Backpage," he said.
The site's owner bears some responsibility for victimizing young girls, he said.
Sgt. John Bandemer, head of the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force in St. Paul, agrees. "What troubles me mostly is that Backpage is profiting off of those sexual service ads," he said.
In March, Backpage generated at least $2.6 million in online prostitution ad revenue, 33 percent more than the same time last year, according to the AIM Group, a Florida-based classified-ads research firm.
"I am very disgusted at what I see from Backpage.com and their complacency to what is happening," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who said the site has been a common starting point for many of his county's recent child sex-trafficking cases.
Liz McDougall, general counsel to Village Voice Media, counters that "although Backpage is a for-profit business, it does not want to make a single penny off of this abhorrent activity."
"In fact, it is investing substantial money, time and personnel in monitoring the site, cooperating with law enforcement and collaborating with anti-trafficking and child protection groups to find effective, workable solutions," she said.
But Backpage's critics say the site has done far more to hurt sex-trafficking victims than to help them.
"Can we prosecute them?" asked Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. "No. Can we embarrass them? Yes."
That's exactly what Backpage's critics have been trying to do all over the country in letters and petitions.
Last August, members of the National Association of Attorneys General, including Minnesota's Lori Swanson, wrote a letter to Backpage's legal counsel calling its efforts to limit prostitution ads "ineffective."
And a petition was created on Change.org to request that Backpage's adult section be taken down. In March, about 250,000 signatures were delivered to Village Voice headquarters in New York.
The federal government, too, has taken notice. In April and May, resolutions were introduced in the House and the Senate calling for the shutdown of the adult section.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said, "As a former prosecutor, I know the horror and violence women and children experience as victims of human trafficking. Backpage.com should put an end to their adult services advertising so that no child can be exploited through their website."
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., agreed. "If the allegations that have surfaced about Backpage are correct, then they should shut down the adult services section of their website," he said in a statement.
Members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, including Minneapolis' R.T. Rybak, wrote to Village Voice Media last month, asking it to require in-person verification of an escort advertiser's ID and proof of age and identity of those depicted in the escort ads.
A Washington state law that would require classified-ad companies to verify the ages of those depicted in sex-related ads on their sites or face potential prosecution was supposed to take effect last week.
However, Village Voice Media was granted a temporary restraining order when it argued that the law would regulate activity outside of the state and would violate First Amendment protections as well as the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects online service providers from being responsible for third-party ad content.
A hearing on Village Voice Media's motion for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for this week.
They'll go 'somewhere else'
Many of its critics say Backpage should follow the example of Craigslist, which shuttered its adult services section in 2010 after similar criticism.
But McDougall, the Village Voice Media general counsel who also represented Craigslist, argues, "Closing cooperative U.S. Web services such as Backpage.com is counter-productive because it drives traffickers back into the shadows where they have historically evaded law enforcement."
Snyder admits that closing the adult section wouldn't eliminate the root problem, noting that when Craigslist closed its adult section, many ads migrated to Backpage.
"If law enforcement learns to use a particular technique and all of a sudden that gets changed or it's no longer there. ... They go somewhere else. Then we have to track that," he said.
Still, Snyder and other Backpage critics say the section's shutdown would be a step in the right direction.
"I don't think shutting down Backpage is going to end child sex trafficking," said Roper-Batker. "But, I think [it would] put a big dent in it."
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495