One of the world’s most notorious sex ads websites was shut down last week by US authorities, bringing to a head a years-long fight by anti-human trafficking activists to close the online classifieds network. But the seizure of Backpage, which formed far-reaching links across Asia using an illicit call centre business in the Philippines, marks only a minor win in the war against trafficking networks.
Now subject to an FBI seizure notice, the website, which the US Justice Department has accused of doctoring and publishing ads depicting the prostitution of children, is barred to the public. The company’s bosses are facing a 93-count indictment with charges ranging from facilitation of prostitution to money laundering. While the CEO Carl Ferrer this week pleaded guilty, co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin maintain their innocence.
“Backpage has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from facilitating prostitution and sex trafficking, placing profits over the well-being and safety of the many thousands of women and children who were victimised by its practices,” said First Assistant US Attorney Elizabeth Strange after the much-publicised seizure.
Created in 2004, Backpage grew rapidly out of the decimation of the newspaper classifieds business. At its height it had 943 location sites on six continents, operated in 97 countries and in 17 different languages.
‘I was forced to sell my body in a Hong Kong bar’: a Filipino’s experience of trafficking, prostitution
The US indictment claims that as the site grew, Backpage began to edit or “clean up” advertising copy so as to hide the explicit promotion of prostitution, particularly of children. As well as nude images, they would “strip out adult terms” such as “Lolita”, “fresh”, “high school”, “tight” and “young”. By the mid 2010s, it had expanded across Asia and by the end of 2017, it had a presence in China (including Hong Kong), India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
However, Backpage’s expansion into Asia did not happen by chance. Details in the US indictment and those with knowledge of the firm’s Philippines operations reveal a far more concerted effort.
A surprise discovery of Backpage’s activities in Asia came when US-based real estate information and marketing firm CoStar launched an unrelated investigation in 2016 into the digital theft of its real estate content. The investigation led CoStar across the globe: to India, Colombia and to Laoag City in the Philippines where it had become suspicious regarding the activities of a company called Avion BPO.
CoStar CEO Andrew Florance recalls how in December that year, the company received court approval to raid the Avion BPO offices. Armed with two aircraft, dozens of vehicles and an 85-person team made up of local law enforcement, private security contractors and forensics experts, they went in. “We had a person tip us off that a competitor was using these offshore centres to steal our data from our servers,” Florance told This Week in Asia. “It was a very ugly situation to find yourself in, and very unpleasant to see up close the kind of horrific things that were going on there.”
Avion BPO’s operation in Laoag City was far from snooping eyes, and its call centre was cramped and run down, according to Florance. After the raid, the US company emerged with hundreds of gigabytes of data, numerous hard drives and millions of images.
“We kept all the evidence and took it all down to Clark Air Base,” the chief executive said. “When we opened it up, we were completely shocked to see not just commercial real estate information, but massive volumes of pornography including child pornography.”
CoStar then notified the FBI of the shock discovery and in December 2017, the Philippines ordered a full-scale probe into Avion BPO’s links to child pornography, prostitution, human trafficking and Backpage. The result is pending. “I believe the people who chose to do business with Avion knew who they were working with. I believe they knew they were involved in illicit behaviour, I think they [Avion] selected that remote location exactly for that reason,” Florance said.
A glimpse into how the Philippine call centre assisted in Backpage’s spread across Asia was also documented in the 61-page US indictment released this month. It alleges that as early as 2013 or 2014, Backpage hired a Philippines-based firm – referred to as Company B or “BPO” – to “create prostitution ads outside of the US”.
By April 2015, Backpage emails featured in the indictment show the Philippines operation had become a success and the company wanted “offshore marketing staff in the Philippines to grow to 166”. And by 2016 in the US, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children says some 73 per cent of the child trafficking cases they dealt with were linked to Backpage.
Advocates for the sex trade have responded to Backpage’s closure with apprehension, because it removes a vital source of business for those legitimately working in the industry. But in Asia, where two thirds of the world’s trafficking victims are sourced, many of whom are forced into the sex business, experts say Backpage’s closure is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Backpage’s closure will have a meagre impact on the sex trade in Southeast Asia, with this impact being most felt in Hong Kong and the Philippines which I believe are the largest consumers per capita of this platform,” said Ricardo Forrester, deputy director of empowerment and analysis at Freeland, an organisation headquartered in Bangkok that specialises in human rights in Asia.
“This impact will cause sex workers or pimps and individuals or groups with vested interests in the sex trade to migrate back to more traditional online platforms for advertising.”
Forrester says sites such as Craigslist in the Philippines and Thailand, and go141 in Hong Kong are just some of the alternatives to Backpage in the region. And for those sex workers concerned about their livelihoods, it’s as simple as joining another platform.
But CoStar’s discovery in the Philippines, which consistently ranks among the highest source nations for human trafficking into the United States, represents a much wider trend that is leaving Asian authorities to play catch-up with trafficking networks.
Domestically, Philippine police are launching more cases against people accused of links to human trafficking and child sex exploitation, according to the US State Department. But keeping up with technology to police online trafficking and child exploitation offences – which are becoming more common – is still a challenge.
Ben Smith, the UN regional programme coordinator for human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants, said in countries such as the Philippines, social media was adding to the difficulties facing police as traffickers used the platforms to lure victims.
“All aspects of human trafficking are facilitated online, from identifying and making contact with the victim, to transporting them to eventually – as with internet classifieds – selling the victim,” he said.
“There is certainly a challenge in the area of online child exploitation. The source of this material that has been produced has come from the Philippines, and there is huge demand for it … we are starting to see more countries in Southeast Asia starting to produce child sexual exploitation material.”
Even so, CoStar’s Florance was optimistic that authorities were catching up with the traffickers. “There was a time when people advised me ‘Forget you ever saw it. Leave it be’. I thought, ‘nah’. And to now be at the end of this saga, it’s nice,” he said. “The fact that the FBI and law enforcement agencies were able to bring these indictments and seize the site was a major restoration of faith in the system for me.” ■