Despite Village Voice Media/Seattle Weekly/Backpage.com’s claims that the the online classified ad site works closely with law enforcement to crack down on juvenile sex trafficking, the Seattle Police Department and Mayor Mike McGinn’s office say Backpage has never voluntarily referred a suspicious escort ad to police for investigation.
Backpage/VVM/the Seattle Weekly have repeatedly claimed their crack team of 100 ad screeners aggressively seek out suspicious ads to send to police. But, according to SPD, Vice detectives never received a single tip about an ad for a suspected juvenile prostitute, despite the fact that SPD has regularly found children being pimped on Backpage.com on their own.
Last Friday, I asked the Weekly whether they could refute the department’s claims, and received a boilerplate response from Chicago-based public relations firm Culloton Strategies, which is now apparently running interference for the VVM chain:
We must be sensitive to any ongoing investigation, therefore we do not provide localized information. You would need to contact law enforcement for numbers specific to your area.
I pointed out that SPD says it has never received a tip from Backpage, and asked if they had any data that showed otherwise, but have yet to receive a response.
I did, however, get a copy of a very long list of Backpage’s security policies, which seem to be mostly reactive rather than proactive in dealing with online child sex trafficking ads:
Backpage.com Safety & Security Backgrounder July 1, 2011
Backpage.com is committed to making our site safer for our members and our community. Over the past nine months, Backpage.com has been focused on increasing the safety and security of the site and on preventing those intent on committing illegal activity through the site. This process is ongoing and is backed by a team that works diligently on safety and security related initiatives across the site. The following are some examples of recent safety measures that Backpage.com has implemented. Implementing Stronger Policies to Prevent Illegal Activity
• Implemented no nudity policy.
• Implemented strict content policies to prevent illegal activity
• Implemented stricter image content standards
Preventing Inappropriate Content
• Images are reviewed for compliance with content policies
• Keyword searches conducted across site to locate inappropriate or illegal content
• Banned inappropriate terms list utilized to identify and prevent illegal content
• Child exploitation response process used to prioritize child related matters
Increasing Online Classified Ad Controls to Prevent Abuse
• Inappropriate ad content removed
• Known bad URLs blocked from being posted on site
• HTML images blocked in ads (except for trusted users)
• Character limit on ads (ad size) reduced significantly
• Users attempting to inappropriately edit ads after review/approval blocked from ad editing process
• All ads edited by user after initial review and approval are reviewed again
• Built tool to restrict ad poster capabilities for policy violations
• Suspicious URLS linked to off-‐site destinations manually reviewed by staff for appropriateness
• Ad moderator accountability system implemented to increase quality and effectiveness.
• Two tier system used to moderate content to increase quality of ad review
• Time alerts utilized to ensure ads are reviewed within 20 minutes of upload
• CAPTCHAs added to report abuse process to prevent abuse reporting misuse Increased security of personally identifiable information of users
Partnering with Law Enforcement and Safety Advocates/Experts
• All law enforcement inquiries involving minors given first priority
• Ads containing possible minors investigated and referred to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
• Created an automated process to quickly report ads suspected of child exploitation to NCMEC
• Trained moderation and support staff to make reports to NCMEC
• Created a process for public users to report illegal postings and to include detailed information which is in turn forwarded to NCMEC
• Created an urgent email communication process with NCMEC for any ads suspected of immediate child endangerment.
• Created process using Google Safe Browsing URL algorithm and NCMEC’s database of known child exploitation URLS and images to automatically report and remove illegal content.
• Worked with law enforcement to improve understandability of information provided during investigations
• Added 4 color electronic documents at the request of law enforcement
• Created FAQ document with each Cybertipline report to assist law enforcement
• Added time, date, and time zone stamps to improve quality of information provided to law enforcement
• Child safety experts enlisted to help guide safety strategies and help prevent illegal misuse of Backpage.com
I asked Seattle police whether they might have received a tip from Backpage via NCMEC. Nope, they say.
I’ve contacted NCMEC as well to see if they’ve got anything to say about Backpage’s work with law enforcement, but haven’t heard back.