Village Voice Media GC Clashes with State AGs Over Prostitution Ads
Note: This story has been updated with a statement from Elizabeth McDougall.
Washington State attorney general Rob McKenna this week lashed out at Elizabeth McDougall, general counsel of Village Voice Media Holdings, labeling her a hypocrite for saying her company is an ally in the fight against human trafficking.
McDougall is used to being called names. Her company publishes the online classified ad service, Backpage.com, which offers, among other things, ads for adult services (i.e., prostitution).
Various blogs in the past year have used the terms corporate sellout, Village Voice pimp, and whore when referring to the GC or the company's adult ads business.
In fairness, a few also see her as a defender of the First Amendment.
In a written statement to CorpCounsel.com Wednesday, McDougall said her company 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." Read the entire statement is here [PDF].
Besides his personal statement, AG McKenna also posted a press release [PDF] Monday saying that McDougall has indicated that her company wont take part in further conversations with the National Association of State Attorneys General unless the AGs stop asking for the websites adult services sections to be taken down.
McKenna co-chairs the AG working group, which is investigating Backpage.coms role in human trafficking and child sexual abuse. Other co-chairs are Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen.
Now they demand that we take the most effective solutionthe removal of adult servicesoff the table before theyre even willing to cooperate, McKenna complained, adding that the AGs rejected her demand.
Connecticuts Jepsen said in the press release, The goal is to protect children from being sold. We are open to any workable solution, but if the only way to do that is to remove all adult services advertisements, then the attorneys general must insist the option remain on the table.
McKenna then attacked McDougall in a personal blog post.
In it he disputed an op-ed article that McDougall wrote for the May 6 Seattle Times, headlined: Backpage.com is an ally in the fight against human trafficking. In her article, McDougall, who lives in Seattle, contends that shutting down the websites closely monitored adult category would simply drive the trafficking underground.
Instead, she urges law enforcement to use the online service as a tool. When traffickers use the Internet, especially in a financial transaction, they leave forensic footprints that create unprecedented tools to locate and rescue victims before they are exploited, and to investigate and convict pimps and their criminal networks, she argues.
She made similar arguments when she appeared on behalf of Craigslist before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime in September 2010.
Craigslist later succumbed to public pressure and dropped the ads.
McDougall wrote that she left a lucrative partnership with Perkins Coie in Seattle to become general counsel at the Phoenix-based Village Voice in February because she believes in its mission.
Why did I make this move? she asks. Because human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of children, is a social atrocity. Because I have children. Because I want human trafficking to stop. Because I believe Backpage.com is a critical ally to make it stop.
But McKenna and others disagree that Backpage.com is an ally.
For example, McKenna cited Washington States groundbreaking law this year that makes it a crime to post minors for sale online. The law provides an affirmative defense for those who show they verified a persons age before accepting an ad.
But McDougall, McKenna says, has indicated her company will seek to overturn the law because age verification is too high a standard. The hypocrisy is rich, he chides.
Another critic of the web site is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote a March 17 column citing NAAG statistics and calling Backpage.com the premier website for human trafficking in the United States.
Backpage accounts for about 70 percent of major online prostitution advertising in the U.S., and earns more than $22 million annually from the prostitution ads, Kristof wrote.
Paradoxically, Village Voice began as an alternative newspaper to speak truth to power. It publishes some superb journalism, the columnist says. So its sad to see it accept business from pimps in the greediest and most depraved kind of exploitation.