The ethical compromise of having sex ads on websites

Image by Eva Ostrowska

Backpage is an American advertising website that provides confidentiality to customers who sell and buy products and services. The platform made its fortune (in 2014 its revenues went up to $135 million) by offering classified listings for a wide range of options: from job listings to real estate. Flat renting aside, Backpage’s main income (90%) came from its adult ads section. Theoretically, the adult ads were meant to promote consensual sexual exchange: escorting, erotic massages, more generally, juicy encounters between two consensual adults in search for money or company.

Unfortunately though, when it comes to the practicalities, things don’t work according to the rules per se. Due to the lack of security checks and rules on the site, Backpage’s adult section turned into a profitable platform for sex trafficking, often involving minors. Pimps and exploiters used the website to advertise women and girls who were abducted, raped, and forced into prostitution. Some of which were as young as thirteen. In the documentary I am Jane Doe (2017), the stories of three underaged girls repeatedly sold for sex through Backpage – who then sued the website for being complicit in the illegal trade ­– are narrated in detail, shedding light upon a nasty US scandal.

What makes this story even more infamous is that it isn’t about a few sporadic cases of child trafficking: it involves thousands of cases. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that child sex trafficking has increased more than 800% in the last five years, most of which has been happening online, facilitated by platforms like Backpage.

Since the documentary – and many investigations and failed court cases later – the sex ads section of Backpage have been censored and the CEO Carl Ferrer arrested with the accusation of sex trading a minor, and attempted trading of sex workers. But for many years Backpage has been protecting itself under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet tycoons like Google & co from facing lawsuits, as the section provides immunity to providers and users of an interactive computer service (like Backpage), who publish content provided by third parties (in this case pimps). In a few simple words: some platforms have no responsibility if their clients pay for publishing harmful or illegal information on their websites.

Despite this seeming victory for anti-sex trafficking organisations, and for the families of the underaged girls, impeding Backpage from featuring sex ads does very little in tackling the bigger problem. The issue here isn’t whether banning sex ads on Backpage will or will not cease sex-trafficking completely, but whether it is okay to allow web-corporations to earn millions from it in total legality.

Once again, the Internet has put users (and web-entrepreneurs) in front of a precarious crossroads: to tackle the issue of online sex trafficking, governments would have to censor – or at least impose strict control – over sex ads, impeding many individuals from promoting and accessing services online. On the other side, to let platforms such as Backpage profit from sex ads means to consciously allow sex trafficking to take place in daylight. In front of such complex dynamics, the question to ask is, what is the price users are willing to pay to keep the Internet a free – and to some extent unregulated – space? The Internet entailed a moral and ethical compromise since day one, just this time, the issue at stake is one that is particularly hard to ignore.