Prop. 35 and the war on sex trafficking

Sept. 21, 2012

By Joseph Perkins 

Chris Kelly deserves a lot of credit. He’s the former Facebook executive who co-authored Proposition 35, the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, which proposes to ramp up punishment of  sex traffickers. 

Kelly told the San Jose Mercury-News that his interest in the issue was piqued during his time at Facebook, where he served as Chief Privacy Officer. He was shocked, he said, at what sexual predators thought they could get away with because of the anonymity the Internet offers. 

That’s why I’m disappointed with Prop. 35, which, much to his credit, Kelly has bankrolled with $1.86 million out of his own pocket. It fails to hold accountable those that enable online sex trafficking of under-age girls (and boys). 

Like Backpage.com, a website owned and operated by Village Voice Media, which also happens to publish SF Weekly, LA Weekly and OC Weekly. It was identified last year by the nation’s 50 state Attorney’s General as an online “hub” for sexual trafficking in minors. 

Indeed, the “adult” section of Backpage.com has classifieds not only for San Francisco, L.A.and Orange County, but for more than 30 cities and counties throughout the Golden State. And the advertisements for “escorts” in every one of the cities and counties include girls that almost certainly are juveniles, who are blatantly selling their sexual services. 

What I find particularly outrageous is Village Voice Media’s defense of its facilitation of online child sex trafficking. The company’s thinking, with respect to the ads that appear on Backpage.com, “is very libertarian,” said company CEO Jim Larkin. 

Well, it is libertarian to oppose government bans on advertising of lawful products and services, like cigarettes, liquor, guns, gambling. And it is arguably very libertarian to oppose restrictions on advertisements of products and services that some think ought to be legal — like adult prostitution. 

But not even the very, very libertarian go so far as to defend online sex trafficking of the under-aged, a niche dominated by Backpage.com. 

Now, I do not know why Kelly, who has expressed concern about the Internet being used by sex traffickers, did not include a provision in Prop. 35 that would crack down on companies doing business in California that knowingly enable such trafficking. 

It may be because Kelly, a Democrat, who ran unsuccessfully for state Attorney General against Kamala Harris,  did not want to alienate Village Voice Media, whose three California “alternative” weekly newspapers boast readerships he will need if he decides to run again for statewide office. 

Or it may be because the former Facebook exec would much prefer to concentrate law enforcement exclusively on pimps trafficking in young girls — proposing prison sentences of 15 years to life for child sex traffickers and fines of up to $1.5 million — while ignoring companies that enable such trafficking. 

Indeed, that not only gives a free pass to Backpage.com, which reportedly accounts for 70 percent of all online prostitution ads, but also other Internet companies used by sex traffickers, including Craigslist, Twitter and, yes, even Facebook. 

I very much want to support Prop. 35, not the least because I consider myself a Californian against sexual exploitation. But I find it hard to vote for a measure that allows Backpage.com, etc., to continue to profit from their online facilitation of child sex trafficking.

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