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Vickroy: Online ‘escort’ site a ‘conduit to criminality’

Updated: February 28, 2014 6:32AM



Homewood, Lansing and Harvey — “Are you looking for a intimate and exciting experience with a sexy and flirty girl who thrives on making you her number one priority? The ultimate experience! Every boys wish, I’m classy, sassy, and can be very N A S T...”

Matteson, Frankfort, Tinley — “Yes its me little miss princess in your town for 2 days only I have curves in all the RIGHT places. I love spending time with respectful Gentlemen & will make your experience something you’ll never forget. A TRUE gentleman rewards himself!...”

Enter the world of Backpage.com. The Google description calls it a site for “Free classified ads with photos. Find houses and apts for rent, personals, jobs, cats and dogs for sale.”

But open a link or two and there they are, ad after ad for female companionship, many directed to a specific town or area, many featuring provocative photos.

Is it online prostitution or free speech?

That has been an ongoing debate in legal, religious and political circles ever since Internet advertising began.

Last week police arrested Alisha M. Walker, 20, of Akron, Ohio, in the stabbing death of Al Filan, a longtime business teacher at Brother Rice High School in Mount Greenwood.

Police said Walker confessed to being at Filan’s Orland Park home on Jan. 18 after he contacted her through Backpage.com.

The pair argued over money and during a struggle, Walker stabbed Filan multiple times and then fled the scene, according to police. Walker’s mother and uncle claim she says she was acting in self-defense and that there was another woman at the residence that night.

Orland park police Comdr. John Keating comfirmed in an email Sunday, “There was another woman who traveled to the home with the suspect.”

In a press release Saturday, police said, “no additional suspects are being sought.”

Cara Smith, executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections, called Backpage “a conduit to criminality.”

“It is at the forefront of child exploitation, human trafficking and prostitution,” she said.

Smith said such sites are able to exist because of the antiquated Communications Decency Act, which tells Internet website owners that they are not liable for what occurs via their website. The act, she said, was created long before anyone envisioned the power and scope that the Internet would have on the advertising world.

Smith said the Sheriff’s department has made close to 700 arrests involving ads placed on Backpage by people offering “massages.”

“There was not one single legitimate massage in the group,” she said.

“We’ve called for a change,” Smith said. “What do we need to have happen before Congress accepts that this federal law has to change?”

Backpage is considered the nation’s leading publisher of online prostitution advertising, according to Advanced Interactive Media Group, a Florida-based organization that tracks online classified advertising in 23 U.S. cities.

In a report last spring, the group said that from February 2012 to February 2013, “the online prostitution ads have generated $39.1 million for the five tracked sites. Of that total, Backpage accounted for $31.4 million, or 80.4 percent.”

Orland Park attorney Joseph Walczak said although prostitution is illegal, implied advertising for it seems to skirt the law because it is offered under the guise of “adult services” or “escort services.”

“The ads are claiming to offer companionship, not sex,” he said.

Nevertheless, across the country, there have been several incidences in which undercover police officers have been solicited by Backpage “escorts,” resulting in their arrest for prostitution.

Still, the Communications Decency Act has enabled such sites to avert legal repercussions in the courts thus far, too. Consider the case against Craigslist.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sued Craigslist in March of 2009, “alleging that the site is a ‘public nuisance’ because its users have posted ads in the ‘erotic services’ category that facilitate prostitution,” according to Digital Media Law Project.

In its defense, Craigslist cited Section 230 of the Act, which states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois agreed and dismissed the suit in October 2009.

The following summer, attorneys general from 17 districts wrote to Craigslist pleading that the site remove the category “adult services.” Craigslist permanently closed the section the next month.

But, Smith said, those ads have simply migrated to different sections of Craigslist. And, in the meantime, that migration has paved the way for other sites to pick up where Craigslist left off.

“It is not uncommon for technology to move faster than the law,” Smith said.

In addition to Backpage, other sites include TheEroticReview.com, CityVibe.com and MyRedBook.com.

New York Times writer David Carr likened the business to a game of “whack-a-mole.” He also calls the sites proof that “a free press is not free.”

The Rev. Rodney Reinhart, pastor of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Harvey and St. Joseph and St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Blue Island, said the news about Filan is both “tragic and unfortunate.”

“Everybody is human and everybody has emotional and physical needs. Even people who are very religious and have a very public spirit sometimes have moments of isolation and loneliness,” he said.

He said people should look at this case as a reminder that “these kinds of online sites can lead to some very serious outcomes.”

Attempts to contact Backpage representatives by phone Sunday were unsuccessful. Though there is no contact number on the website, only general email, several numbers listed on other sites on behalf of Backpage were either disconnected or attached to a FAX machine.



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