Misguided Senators Propose Plan To Make It Harder For Law Enforcement To Track Down Human Trafficking Online

from the you're-doing-it-wrong dept

We’ve been covering the bizarre (mostly publicity-motivated) attacks on the Village Voice’s Backpage.com site for a while. Those efforts have been ramping up, and every day I seem to get press releases from some ridiculous group that is apparently coordinating this misguided and dangerous attack. It appears that some of the silly publicity stunt is working, with Senators Richard Blumenthal, Mark Kirk, John Cornyn, Sheldon Whitehouse and Marco Rubio all supporting a “resolution” demanding Backpage take down its “adult entertainment” section. We’ve seen this battle before. Craigslist went through the same ridiculous moral panic a few years ago. And all it did was drive all of this traffic elsewhere — with a lot of it settling on Backpage. Of course, that effort was led by then Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, before he became a Senator — so it’s no surprise that he’s involved in this pointeless effort as well.

Here’s the thing: we already know how this game plays out. You can browbeat these companies into shutting off this part of their forums against their own will, and many of them will cave. And you’ll celebrate victory, but as you do that, everyone will be rapidly exploring alternatives, which most will move to pretty quickly. In other words, such a crackdown won’t do a damn thing to stop people from actually being exploited. Even worse, in pressuring that content to scatter, it becomes much more difficult for law enforcement to track down and arrest the real criminals who are abusing the system. But nothing in getting Backpage to turn off this section actually helps to stop such trafficking/prostitution. It just makes life that much more difficult for law enforcement, since they now need to do a lot more work to track down the people abusing these laws. I fail to see how that’s a positive result, as the government has insisted.

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Companies: craigslist, village voice

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Comments on “Misguided Senators Propose Plan To Make It Harder For Law Enforcement To Track Down Human Trafficking Online”

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Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

Mike, I agree that by shutting down boards like this it does nothing but drive traffic elsewhere. But at the same point as concerned people and humans are we just suppose to watch the acts and do nothing?

I am never for internet censorship, but as humans that want to help other humans what should we do?

Is the fault with us? Should we not be doing more to discourage this kind of activity? Or are we not able to and therefore only able to try and shut down the avenues of exploitation.

I am not by any measure an expert, but even given my conflicts, I want exploitation of women stopped and the means and ways should be shut down.

I am glad you opened this dialog as I hope to see in the comments solutions.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

It isn’t a choice of do this or do nothing. It’s a choice, as are most matters of government, of where do you allocate your resources. Grandstanding nonsense like this and the CL issue are ways to make headlines, not ways to make people safer.

In the time and resources it took to put this bullshit together, how many more arrests of traffickers could be made? How much new technology could be utilized to find these people and get them off the street?

The question you have to ask yourself is: what is the motivation behind this action? The only true answer is “noteriety”, which works to the detriment of any actual solution to the problem….

Blibert says:

I agree...but also disgree

You actively encourage the police/district attorneys/etc to investigate and use the ads to their advantage. You aid/encourage that effort by perusing the ads and reporting any that you suspect involve trafficking or young/underage children to the police.

If you’re not willing to do BOTH of these then you don’t really care whether the activity is stopped, you just want it hidden from your view so that you can’t see it or so you can convince yourself it doesn’t happen when you can’t see it.

Noah Callaway says:

I agree...but also disgree

We all agree that the behavior is deplorable. We all agree that it should be stopped. There’s no debate about that.

The debate is whether shutting down, or removing it from a website will stop the behavior. The answer is “No”. It doesn’t. As Mike’s said, it spreads it around and pushes it further underground.

Stopping this behavior is going to require hard-on-the-ground police work. It’s not easy, and generally needs to be done on a case by case basis. With luck, the Feds can stop a large amount at a time.

You can help the problem, by notifying the authorities when you see behavior like this. If you see a post that’s suggesting illegal behavior, tell the POLICE, not the SITE OWNER. The police can stop the person and the behavior. The site owner can only stop the expression of that behavior on their site, while the behavior continues unabated.

If you agree that shutting down the site doesn’t stop the behavior, then this should be a non-issue. It makes the only thing that DOES stop it (the aforementioned hard police-work) even harder.

TasMot (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

I am not “nannied” by those politicians but I can categorically state that what they are doing will achieve nothing. In Baltimore, there was a famous red light district “The Block”, many many “strip clubs”, which was actually about 8 blocks long. At one end was the Baltimore City Police Central Station. A while ago, the politicians decided to “clean up” the block because there was too much prostitution going on and they wanted to stop it. So, after denying permits for alchohol, health code violations and other trumped up charges, most of the bars and adult bookstores closed on the “The Block”. Then, the bars and adult book stores opened in other places and the prostitutes moved up to the block where the court house was and on to other streets and neighborhoods. All you had to do was watch the papers and/or ask around and it was easy to find out where they relocated. There “may” be less, but now it is harder to find because it is not all in one place. It is not done in one place where everybody knows where it is and next to a police station (where could the girls be safer from abuse and watched for being underage than right next to a police station?). Now, the streetwalkers have to be on the go and in other neighborhoods (which I’m sure is good for the neighbors). But, the politicians of yesteryear (who the hell were they), go to play whack a mole and not achieve anything. Yeah for useless politicians and could you please stop and give me back some of my money?

Torg (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

If doing nothing produces a more positive result than doing something, then yes, you’re supposed to do nothing, no matter how bad inaction makes you feel. This’ll have as much effect on human trafficking as blocking The Pirate Bay has on piracy.

Now, if you have the technical knowledge to find out where the people advertising on the site are, or you have some other way to contribute positively, then by all means try to make law enforcement’s job easier. But the situation is not as simple as “doing something is better than doing nothing”.

Ninja (profile) says:

We are all familiar with the facts-free way politics is conducted. That said, it’s pretty much the same issue with those useless and dangerous child porn filters (that end up being used as censorship tools): the pedophiles are still on the loose and it’s much harder to identify and follow the problem.

Now a much better situation would be to identify the criminal offerings on Craiglist/Backpages and the likes and work with the company and service providers to track and arrest the ones behind than blocking the adult section. Let the sex workers have their channel and do proper investigation. You know, do what the police should be doing instead of some security theater/show with little to no real benefits to the society.

Norma Jean Almodovar (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree- but what about victims of rape and domestic violence?

So many people are concerned about the plight of us poor sex slaves… most of us in the sex industry are not sex slaves nor are we victims of human trafficking… but here’s the reality: the US government’s 2011 report of investigated human trafficking cases for the two and a half year period showed they opened 2,515 investigations, but of that number, 30% were found to be actual human trafficking, 38% NOT human trafficking and the remainder undetermined. Let’s put this into perspective: 301 cases per year of confirmed human trafficking, while there were 88,000 reported rapes in the US in one year, of which 20% of the rapists were apprehended. The US Government also reported that there are 12 MILLION incidents of intimate partner violence and 1 MILLION incidents of intimate partner rape each year. ?Let’s see, 301 victims of human trafficking compared to 88,000 rape victims and 12 million victims of intimate partner violence-and 1 million victims of intimate partner rape… what shall we do to help THOSE victims? Shut down all sites that advertise for ‘matches’ that lead to marriage? When domestic violence is so prevalent? What about dating sites which could lead to date rape? Here’s an idea…. How about when we sex workers are victims of abuse, we are allowed to go to the police LIKE EVERY OTHER EMPLOYEE IN OTHER JOBS, and file a complaint about our abuser? We make victims of rape and domestic violence go to the police and file reports- we don’t arrest their perpetrators without a complaint from them… so are the victims of rape and domestic violence less important to you than us prostitutes? Stop treating consenting adult prostitutes like we were children… decriminalize consenting adult commercial sex and we promise to call you when we need or want your help.

Cowardly Anonymous says:

I agree...but also disgree


The key to criminal investigation is getting out there and talking to people without appearing to be police (no, you can’t use this phase for evidence). Eventually they send you to someone who is planning to do something illegal (you must wait for them to do this on their own, promoting the activity is bad). Then you tip off the cops on the local beat and have them show up with arrest warrants granted on the reasonable suspicion collected by the under cover guy (stuff which won’t be used at evidence).

That or you just quietly bust a minor player for screwing around with another illegal activity, hand them a wire and tell them how they can walk away from this a free citizen.

All warrants in these schemes comes from freely volunteered information. No evidence is collected without a warrant. Any innocent that is wrongly targeted won’t end up doing something illegal at the behest of the agents.

You can adapt these techniques to the Internet fairly easily, you just have to back it up with local enforcers for the final bust.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

Nobody’s proposing doing “nothing”. Clearly, investigation, followed by arrest/prosecution/trial/etc. should happen if the facts support that. But that’s not what this resolution does.

There is a frequent “we must do something!” pattern in many areas (including security, which is usually where I see it). It’s damned hard to convince people that sometimes the most rational course of action is to do nothing. Marcus Ranum lists this as #6 on his list of The Six Dumbest Ideas in Security (brilliant rant, required reading for EVERYONE who works in the field) and neatly encapsulates the failure to stop making this mistake in An Utter Flop when he says:

Information security’s response to bitter failure, in any area of endeavour, is to try the same thing that didn’t work – only harder.

For example, there are still miserably stupid people on this planet who think that anti-virus software works (for a useful value of “works”) despite decades of overwhelmingly convincing proof that it doesn’t. (Of course, they’re assisted in this belief by companies who want to sell them worthless, expensive snake-oil.)

The same principle applies in politics, economics, and other fields as well. In this case: clearly, going into a moral panic and targeting Craigslist has had precisely zero effect on the problem. Now politicians are going to try the same thing that didn’t work — only harder. How do you think that’ll work out?

(Another contemporary example: enforced austerity measures in Spain are driving the country’s economy into the ground. Quickly. The response? More austerity. Brilliant.)

Tim K (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

I think Mike went into this a bit more in one of the previous posts about this. He mentioned that Craigslist was willing to work with law enforcement to help them track down these people, but when you force Craigslist to shut that part down, then they move to other services who may not be as willing to help as the previous users, on top of which, you have to find out where they scattered to. So no, you don’t do nothing, you work with the company to find them.

Marcel de Jong (profile) says:


than put a tax on it. Have some sort of ‘sales’ tax on prostitution. And suddenly you have a new revenue for the ailing states.

Same with legalizing marihuana (growing and selling), you can put rules on quality control, you can put sales tax on them, and you can check up on the people who smoke a lot. Aside from the sales tax thing, it also removes the forbidden fruit aspect, so people won’t lust after it so much (would change quite a few hollywood movies as well). And it removes the gateway function of marihuana. No streetdealers saying: “hey, wanna try some coke, first time’s free.”

Sadly, in my country (The Netherlands) we are going the reverse route. Next year, foreigners will not be able to get weed in coffeeshops, not even in Amsterdam. Which will increase streetdealers, and thus more chances of people getting hurt through bad quality, and gateway drugs.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree- but what about victims of rape and domestic violence?


We also need to engage in a massive amount of education, because there are still, despite decades of efforts, imbeciles walking around out there who spout nonsense like “…she shouldn’t have dressed like that” and “…she shouldn’t have gone there” and “…she has sex all the time” and “…she shouldn’t have been alone with X” and so on — all of which blame the victim, along with a side order of sexist shaming for (GASP!) actually being a woman.

And that’s not all. “Prison rape” is a punchline to many, but it’s not a joke: it’s an epidemic. But our society — which imprisons far more people per capita than any other — apparently figures that whatever happens to someone in prison is just fine: rape, beatings, doesn’t matter. And then we wonder why people don’t come out all magically reformed and better, and you know, just pick up where they left off.

These (and more) would be useful places to apply our resources, financial and personnel and otherwise. But it won’t happen. See comment in another thread earlier today for why. No, instead, women and men will continue to be raped in large numbers, perpetrators will pretty much get away with it, and the FBI will keep creating its very own terror plots in an expensive circle jerk…instead of actually solving actual crimes.

A Guy (profile) says:


No one wants a “wide open” market for human trafficking. We want substantive action taken. We want to be able to measure where it’s coming from and where it’s going. We want to remove the incentives that drive the worst abuses.

Shifting the advertising and distribution networks around makes intelligence gathering harder and does nothing to address the core of the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:


“Shifting the advertising and distribution networks around makes intelligence gathering harder and does nothing to address the core of the problem”

Actually, it does. The business is money driven, and that money comes from customers found via advertising. Remove the income, and suddenly there is less demand for new workers, which helps to address the core issue.

Prostitution, pimping, and “human trafficing” is a 100% money driven business. Anything that makes it hard for them to make money addresses at least part of the issue, and removes something that is unacceptable to most of society from public view. That in itself makes it harder for them to make money, makes them have to do more overt things to get new customers, makes them take bigger risks to make money, and makes them easier to pick off.

How many girls do you think the cops can bust a day without breaking the system?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I agree...but also disgree

More funds to the type of work done in this story.

Rather than try and force them to darker spots, where it is harder to find them, stop grandstanding to make the work that much harder.

I have no fear of this type of police work. It is well targeted, and seems to work. Its a damn sight better than if we sweep it under the rug we can pretend it doesn’t exist anymore and get reelected.

Imagine cooperating with CL to run posts through a system using machine learning that knows what the keywords are, and then presents good hits to LEO’s. The LEO makes contact and if your innocent nothing happens because your not a creep, if your a predator you take the bait and go down.

Instead these idiots make it so LEO’s have to try and figure out what site they moved to this week, monitor several different places where the law might not let them get IP addresses and other useful information. But won’t someone think of the children? Yeah the greatest threat to children is the people who use that battlecry.

Anonymous Coward says:

I agree...but also disgree

Instead these idiots make it so LEO’s have to try and figure out what site they moved to this week, monitor several different places where the law might not let them get IP addresses and other useful information. But won’t someone think of the children? Yeah the greatest threat to children is the people who use that battle cry.

If law enforcement simply used the publication as a sourcebook for arrests, how long before the bad guys would figure it out and move to a more secure venue? The difference is that the publication can accomplish the same thing with the flick of the switch. Almost all of law enforcement is whack-a-mole. Drugs, robbery, burglary, gang activity, etc.- law enforce squeezes in one place and it largely moves to another.

A Guy (profile) says:


“How many girls do you think the cops can bust a day without breaking the system?”

How does busting girls help? You’re making the desperate people more desperate by adding more costs to them. That’s not a good incentive to stop.

Adding costs to their customers might help, but I’m a little indifferent to what consenting adults do. I don’t condone it, I just accept that the world can be an ugly place and people do what they must to survive.

Surveilling these ads seems like a good way to gather intelligence on those trafficking in children. I think driving the market further underground just makes it harder to help the real victims.

Anonymous Coward says:

I agree...but also disgree

The answer to crime is good old-fashioned police work, plus a court system which works (and is not massively overloaded by spurious cases), not censorship and certainly not political grandstanding. The police should concentrate on serious crimes with victims. If they have resources left after that, then well and good.

Politicians need to realise that there are already far too many laws for them all to be enforced. They need to get on with the hard, boring unglamorous work of rationalising the law. But none of that is anywhere near as much fun as grandstanding, is it?

Mike Masnick (profile) says:


What argument? That I’d prefer law enforcement focus on actually finding and stopping those responsible, instead of having stupid political grandstanding push it further underground where it becomes harder to stop. Why yes, OF COURSE, I make that same argument.

What’s scary is that you seem to WANT to sweep child porn and child prostitution under the rug, making it easier for people to get away with it. You’re sick. Get help.

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