Pay Attention, America: Argentina bans sex ads in classifieds, takes stand against human trafficking

There’s a perception among some of my counterparts in the online classifieds business that adult-oriented classified ads allow consenting adults to find each other on the Internet for the sake of engaging in adult activities.

But let’s be honest about the situation – this has become far more than just a forum for consenting adults. It’s become a human trafficking snake pit, a place where innocent women – and certainly young girls, too – are being offered as sexual favors for cash. It’s a disgrace that this sort of behavior can occur in a modern-day, civilized society – but it does, without government intervention.

Finally, a government has taken efforts to squash this open forum by passing a law that bans sex ads in newspapers. Last week, Argentina’s President signed a law that bans sex ads from newspapers in that country. Recognizing the hypocrisy of these publications, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said: ,

Newspapers can’t print headlines demanding that we fight human trafficking, while their back pages present ads that humiliate women.

For years, I have been saying something very similar and, most recently, called on other online classifieds site operators to join me in removing “personals” ads from their publications. To date, none has joined me.

The new law in Argentina is indicative of what happens when entities fail to self-regulate and protect their consumers – the government steps in. But what other choice was there? These ads were leading to countless murders, rapes, robberies, and scams, all of which fall on to local police and court systems, a drain on local resources.

Here’s the thing: This isn’t just happening in “some other country.” This is just as much a problem for the U.S. as it is any other country. America prides itself on being a global leader in, well, just about everything. Washington should be paying close attention to the government intervention in Argentina. There are headlines in cities across America about people who are murdered, raped, robbed and scammed via online classifieds sites, notably Craigslist. Heck, there’s even a movie called “The Craigslist Killer.”

I can’t tell you why, exactly, these other site owners won’t join me in my efforts to rid the Internet of marketplaces where innocent people can be preyed upon and victimized. I always thought it was a business decision. But, a recent article in the Village Voice, a well-known New York City tabloid, tells another story. The newspaper also owns, an online classifieds site that continues to post personals ads.

The article is really more of an assault on a CNN reporter who has been working to raise awareness of the human trafficking problem in this country. But what’s more disturbing is that the author uses the First Amendment to the Constitution to defend the placement of these ads on the Backpage site. In the article, the Village Voice writes: is not a newspaper. It’s an Internet bulletin board where people can place ads for anything from rental apartments to bicycles to lawnmowers. And, yes, it’s a place where adults can post notices so that other adults can contact them. What happens when two adults find each other through I couldn’t tell you. The whole point of is that we aren’t involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board, which exists solely so that people can freely express themselves—sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable. We’re First Amendment extremists that way. Always have been.

Is that what this is? The First Amendment? Certainly, if it is, that makes it tougherfor the U.S. government to take a stand the way the Argentina government did. Lawyers and judges would have to get involved to argue about whether these ads are protected under the First Amendment. It could get expensive and take a lot of time.

In fairness, I will note that Backpage, according to the Village Voice piece, says that 123 employees screen about 20,000 ads everyday, “making constant searches for keywords that might indicate an underage user…” The article says that it cooperates with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when suspicious ads are red-flagged and that its reports have actually helped to find runaways. In fact, in what appears to be a pat on the back, the article notes that the screening process resulted in 230 reports to law enforcement last month.

That’s quite a load on local law enforcement. Imagine how many reports Backpage might have made if it didn’t allow these sorts of ads to begin with.

Still, I maintain that this is a fight that’s worth fighting. Human trafficking is a black-eye on today’s modern society and the fact that we, as a civilized nation, turn a blind eye when it comes to the open marketplace for these sort of human transactions is – at the very least – shameful.

I look forward to the day that the U.S. government takes a stand to protect innocent victims of human trafficking. More importantly, I’m hopeful that my counterparts in this industry will regulate themselves first and recognize that, collectively, we can bring human trafficking efforts to a crawl instead of providing them an express lane.

Related reading:

Huffington Post: Child Sex Trafficking: Setting the Record Straight
My challenge to Craigslist: Keep criminals off your site
Craigslist removes some adult categories: Hold your applause