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Canada Anti-trafficking activists cheer, but sex workers bemoan shutdown of Backpage.com ads

The abrupt shutdown of Backpage.com – a classified website known for prostitution ads, including advertising linked to the sex trafficking of minors – has sparked divided reactions in Canada, with anti-trafficking groups applauding the move, while sex-worker groups are concerned its closing makes them less safe.

U.S. federal authorities took down the site on Friday, running a banner that said “Backpage.com and its affiliate sites have been seized.” The site is “notorious” for prostitution ads, including ads of children, according to the indictment unsealed in the U.S. District Court of Arizona on Monday. It said the Phoenix-based company has earned more than $500-million in prostitution-related revenue since its inception.

This screen grab from Monday shows the notice posted on Backpage.com and affiliated websites.

-/Getty Images

The site ran escort ads in cities across Canada. It was regularly used by law enforcement to search for and contact those they suspected were being trafficked. The site’s shutdown has generated mixed – and strong - reactions. Groups such as the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking called it a “victory” in the fight against sex trafficking; others that advocate for sex-worker rights were dismayed.

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The site ran escort ads in cities across Canada. It was regularly used by law enforcement to search for and contact those they suspected were being trafficked. The site’s shutdown has generated mixed – and strong - reactions. Groups such as the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking called it a “victory” in the fight against sex trafficking; others that advocate for sex-worker rights were dismayed.

“This is a crisis” for sex workers who relied on the site, said Valerie Scott, Toronto-based legal co-ordinator at Sex Professionals of Canada, who has been a sex worker for several decades. She says the move will drive activity further underground, making it much more difficult to screen clients. “Everyone knows the street is dangerous. ... You begin working in out-of-the-way, dark areas. The client is in control: it’s his car. So people don’t know who you’re with, how long you’ve been gone or when you’re expected to be back. You don’t know who you’re with.”

Others, such as Cynthia Bland, founder and CEO of Ottawa-based Voicefound, an organization that works to prevent commercial sexual exploitation, applauded the shutdown.

“Any business that makes money selling children and youth should not be allowed to operate and it’s shocking that it’s taken this long to take it down,” said Ms. Bland, who is a survivor of child sexual abuse. “We know that traffickers will move to other platforms to facilitate this crime, however when we allow them to continue we are sending a message that victims are not worthy of protection.”

The indictment says many of Backpage’s ads depicted victims of sex trafficking, and that the company “allowed such ads to be published while declining – for financial reasons – to take necessary steps to address the problem.” For example, it says that Backpage’s official policy was to scrub ads of words – such as teen − that denoted the child’s age before publishing a revised version of the ad.

In Canada, an average of 1,600 new adult-services ads (which include female escorts and body rubs) were posted on Backpage every day, according to an estimate last year by Uncharted Software, a Toronto-based data visualization firm. By its count, Backpage hosted about 60 per cent of all the online adult ads in Canada, making it the largest provider in the country.


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This is a crisis (for sex workers)

— Valerie Scott

In Toronto, police working to stop sex trafficking were caught off-guard by the shutdown – but they supported the move and said it wouldn’t hinder their investigations.

“This site was profiting from mainly exploited females, and most of the underage girls in Toronto that we have dealt with were advertised there,” said Detective Sergeant Nunzio Tramontozzi, head of the Toronto Police Service’s sex crimes and human trafficking enforcement team. “It sends a strong message that people are not going to tolerate it anymore.”

Online sex ads have already migrated to other sites, which Toronto police are monitoring. “Will it make a huge difference? I’m not sure …because they’re just going to use another platform,” he said.

In Winnipeg, Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, also welcomed the shutdown.

“We’ve seen for years that Backpage is a hotspot for trafficking and exploitation of children and youth, so any step to eliminate something that’s so publicly available is a very positive thing,” said Ms. Arnason.

Backpage stood out for how overt the ads were, she added. Though some police may see it as a useful tool in helping them identify victims, “the problem is, when it’s so overtly publicly available, we’re contributing to its normalization. And that unto itself is an enormous problem.”

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Still, some say the crackdown will make conditions less safe for self-employed sex workers who are there of their own volition.

AnnaLise Trudell, manager of education at Anova, a women’s shelter and sexual assault centre, works with women involved in sex work in the London, Ont. area. “This is actually already making them feel unsafe, and making them have to make unsafe decisions.”

Backpage is just a platform, Ms. Trudell said. “What can happen within it can be harmful, and what can happen within it can be empowering. You’ve actually thrown them both out by doing this.”

In the queer and trans sex worker community, Backpage “was also the first place we’d check when a friend disappeared,” said Hailey Heartless, who has advertised on Backpage. “We could often find friends there who had their phone cut off or needed to take a break from the community, and we could make sure they were safe.”

Moreover, since the shutdown, “there’s been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages promising work,” Ms. Heartless said. “If the point of closing Backpage is to decrease that kind of behaviour, it seems to have backfired.”

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