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  • Greg Collier 2:02 pm on November 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Business decisions can be driven by moral values. Will Backpage step up to prove it? 

    It looks like Village Voice Media has backed itself into a pretty tight corner – and I suspect that the spot light that’s been shining on it recently is starting to make things a bit warm and uncomfortable right about now. 

    Village Voice Media, of course, is the owner of Backpage.com, an online classifieds site that has developed quite the reputation for being friendly to listings that solicit prostitution and facilitate human trafficking against women and children. Earlier this week, protesters – including celebrity Alicia Keys– staged a demonstration in front of the company’s New York offices, calling on them to quit enabling sex traffickers. 

    Village Voice executives, as you can imagine, are fighting back to squash such perceptions of their business practices. They’ve pointed to a policy of working with law enforcement to deter solicitation of children. They’ve attacked their critics, arguing that human trafficking assertions are over-exaggerated. And they’ve even lashed out at a group of clergy who called on them to change their business practices by declaring that “neither government officials nor God’s advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or speech.” 

    Believe it or not, I actually understand – from a business perspective – why Village Voice is reacting the way it is. It’s future depends on it. 

    You see, these sorts of ads bring in big money for the company – estimated to be roughly $23.5 million annually – and execs cannot afford to lose it. Alternative-weeklies haven’t fared well in the changing media landscape and this lucrative forum for sex ads is one of the last lifelines for the company. 

    For the longest time, Backpage was able to quietly collect on an online cash cow while Craigslist – viewed at the larger marketplace for this illegal activity – absorbed much of the criticism from human rights activists. But then Craigslist caved to the pressures of public opinion, government inquiries and business backlash and pulled the plug on its “Erotic Services” section (even though some argue that the ads have since found a place for themselves in the “Personals” sections.) Since then, the pressure has shifted to BackPage. 

    Following Craigslist’s lead by pulling these ads or even by investing money to review ads and keep questionable ones off the site can be poisonous to Village Voice’s bottom line. Village Voice execs are facing a big dilemma – either risk the public backlash by continuing to do what they’re doing or pull the plug on a significant revenue source and allow a decision based on morals and values trump one that’s driven by business interests alone. 

    You might think it’s an easy decision – but it’s not. I’ve been there. 

    It’s been more than a year since I pulled the plug on Personals ads on Geebo – a gesture toward our commitment toward social responsibility, not a reaction to a problem with questionable ads. Since then, I have called on my industry counterparts to do the same – to put human rights in front of business dollars. To date, none have responded to my challenge. 

    I also understand why that decision may have been easier for me than it might be for others. Backpage is owned by a media company, which has investors that are expecting strong financial performance in exchange for their dollars. They are looking for a return on that investment – and shutting off a revenue pipeline for moral reasons doesn’t help them achieve a lucrative return on their investments. 

    Personally, I’ve distanced myself from investors largely for that reason. I want to be able to make my own business decisions without input or interference from investors who really only have one concern – the payback. I want to be able to make business decisions based on morals and values. 

    I want to be able to sleep with my own conscience every night.

    • Lynette Widdison 8:08 am on November 21, 2011 Permalink

      As this is a big issue for us advocating against human trafficking, thank you from my heart for putting people first and the bottom line second. More people need to be aware of this.

  • Greg Collier 4:25 pm on November 3, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Police task force scours craigslist to recover stolen goods; What is craiglist doing to help? 

    If a police detective ever referred to Geebo as “the ultimate pawn shop” and a police task force had to be created because of the criminal activity being conducted solely on my site, I think I would seriously think about closing up shop and walking away with my head held down in shame.

    Yet, my counterparts over at craigslist seem to be OK with that negative stigma attached to their site. The company was recently the basis for a segment on ABC News, centered around a Portland, Ore. police task force that’s recovering stolen property that’s being sold on craigslist.

    You see, because it’s so easy to buy and sell on craigslist without any accountability, it has become the marketplace of choice for criminals – and that’s made it easy for burglary victims, as well as police, to recover the property. Police in Portland boast a success rate of about 80 percent. That’s pretty good and I’m sure the victims are pretty happy.

    But watch the ABC news clip and tell me if you notice what I noticed.

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    In the two sting operations that were aired, neither of the sellers turned out to be the thieves themselves. In fact, one was reportedly a victim, as well – or so it was reported. So, while the police were able to recover the property – which is a good thing – they didn’t make any arrests.

    Here’s my question: What is craiglist doing to deter criminals from using its site to peddle stolen goods? Is it reviewing ads for possible red-flags, the same way the cops are? I mean, come on, the police are getting better at identifying possible stolen property in the ads – high-priced items listed at fire-sale prices with very little details about the items. Are these items often posted by the same email addresses? That’s only something craigslist would know.

    If criminals knew that craigslist and police were working together to deter the selling of stolen goods on the site, don’t you think the activity would come to a halt – or at least slow down? But it seems like the cops are on their own here – and taxpayers are footing the bill. Police resources are thin these days and here we have an entire task force devoted to criminal activity being conducted on one site.

    What a waste.

    Related: ABC News: What to do if you find your stolen property on Craigslist.

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