If you’ve ever wandered over to Backpage.com and spent a few minutes reviewing the classified ads there, you probably realized that you had just discovered the seedy underbelly of the internet. Rife with ads for adult services — which is arguably just an elegant way of saying prostitution — the website, owned by Village Voice Media, has come under fire for its association with human trafficking.

Leave it to the company’s general counsel, Elizabeth McDougall, to take a stand for these scandalous online ads. After all, it’s great business! Backpage reportedly has a 70% market share for prostitution ads in the United States, generating millions in revenue.

This week, McDougall is taking additional heat from state attorneys general for her statements in an off-color op-ed column published in the Seattle Times. What could she have said that was so controversial?

According to Corporate Counsel, McDougall, a mother and former partner at Perkins Coie (until February 2012), is used to being called names (names like “corporate sellout,” the “Village Voice pimp,” and “whore”). But she’s never been called a hypocrite before.

That’s what Washington State attorney general Rob McKenna referred to her as after reading her op-ed piece, “Backpage.com is an ally in the fight against human trafficking.” Here’s a quote from the Seattle Times article:

Elizabeth McDougall

Weeks ago, I was a lawyer litigating high-profile Internet and cybercrime cases, and providing pro bono services to help victims of abuse, exploitation and civil-rights violations, including human trafficking. Today, I am still fighting cybercrime and human exploitation — but as general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings, owner of Backpage.com.

Backpage.com is an online classifieds service. It includes a category of “adult” advertising that has been the recent target of accusations that it facilitates human trafficking.

Why did I make this move?

Because human trafficking, especially sex trafficking of children, is a social atrocity. Because I have children. Because I want human trafficking to stop. Because I believe Backpage.com is a critical ally to make it stop.

McDougall argues that to stop online human trafficking, there needs to be a place for advertising adult services, and that place needs to act as an ally for law enforcement. And if that place, namely Backpage, just so happens to generate millions from prostitution ads in the interim, then so be it. It also goes without saying that when state attorneys general demand that the adult services section of the website be taken down, this so-called ally will refuse to take part in further discussions to combat human trafficking online.

Washington’s AG McKenna responded to McDougall’s “jaw-dropping claim” in a personal blog post:

There’s an easy solution if Backpage executives really want to prove they’re allies in the fight against human trafficking: end adult services ads, which are, by the way, for services illegal in every state. However, we recognize that Backpage executives are hesitant to sacrifice profits in order to safeguard human trafficking victims. But at the same time, they shouldn’t lie to the public by claiming to be an “ally in the fight against human trafficking.”

Unlike the women featured in Backpage’s adult services ads, McDougall won’t take this lying down. Recently quoted in Businessweek as saying, “If they shut down the adult category, I’ll leave,” she seems to have a bit of a problem on her hands. Will she stop “fighting” human trafficking by allowing human trafficking to continue, or stop helping her company reap the rewards of prostitution?

As it stands, all bets seem to be on option two. No wonder she’s been called a “whore” — because in all honesty, it appears that she’s just doing it for the money.

Village Voice Media GC Clashes with State AGs Over Prostitution Ads [Corporate Counsel]
Backpage.com is an ally in the fight against human trafficking [Seattle Times]
Backpage: an “ally” in the fight against trafficking? [In General / WA State Office of the Attorney General]
Liz McDougall on Defending Classified Ads for Erotic Services [Businessweek]


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