CYBERSPACE—Village Voice Media and Backpage.com issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon in response to a letter sent to them from 21 state attorneys general demanding the closure of the adult services section on the online classified site. The response was a resounding if respectful no.
“Backpage.com is a legal business and operates its website in accordance with all applicable laws,” the statement reads. “In response to concerns raised by the AGs in recent months, Backpage.com has increased its efforts to provide clear, legal rules to users who post classified ads and to ban users who violate those rules. While no system is perfect, even the AGs acknowledge Backpage.com's good-faith cooperation with law enforcement.”
The company further states that while 58 million ads have been posted to the site in the past two years only 6 million have been in the adult services section, and that state and federal authorities have asked Backpage.com to testify in cases involving the alleged abuse of minors a total of five times, and continues to respond to all valid law enforcement subpoenas.
“Backpage.com is disappointed that the AGs have determined to shift blame from criminal predators to a legal business operator in an apparent attempt to capitalize on political opportunity during the election season,” the statement continues, in a tone that only increases in exasperation. “The Internet was born. The federal government enacted laws to regulate its use and to allocate responsibilities and immunities to web operators. Backpage.com follows those laws and it declines to censor an entire section of free speech from its website.
“Censorship will not create public safety nor will it rid the world of exploitation,” the statement concludes.
Tuesday’s statement came a day after Village Voice Media issued a scathing denial of the charges contained in a lawsuit filed against the company Sept. 16 by M.A., an unnamed 15-year-old girl who is alleged to be a victim of sex trafficking through Backpage.com. The complaint claims the girl’s pimp placed ads on the site, and alleges it knowingly aided and abetted the crime of facilitating prostitution, the exploitation of children and child pornography.
The response opens strong, reminding people that the pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, was convicted with the help of Backpage.com's records. The Voice points its hard finger at the plaintiff’s attorney rather than the minor, however, accusing him of trying to “milk a tragedy” by suing.
“The lawsuit is riddled with errors,” the statement continues venomously. “The claim that we knowingly assisted McFarland in committing criminal acts is a lie fabricated by a trial lawyer looking for a payday. The attorney seeks to redirect blame from a convicted predator to Backpage.com, which helped prosecute the criminal.
Not content to attempt a complete discrediting of the motives behind the lawsuit, the statement in response, written by Village Voice legal counsel Steve Suskin, also defends the law that protects internet service providers and other online portals from people who abuse their terms and conditions and break the law in the process.
“Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 recognized that the very nature of the Internet meant that vast traffic depended on the ability of citizens to post directly onto websites like Backpage.com, Facebook, MySpace or eBay, or to have search engines like Google and Yahoo find postings without pre-screening or censorship,” Suskin wrote, adding, “The responsibility, under the law, rests with the person supplying the post.”
Clearly, with these two unambiguous and powerful statements, Village Voice Media has drawn a free speech line in the sand it has no intention of violating.