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Procuring Online Via Advertisements

In France, a free online ads page , VivaStreet,received a complaint for  the procuring of a minor, meanwhile a legal battle ensues  in the United States against one of its  largest ad sites, Backpage. Are these publicity sites (further referred to as ad sites) complicit in the system of prostitution or are they merely an open, online service that should not be held accountable for the content published by their users? Can the fight against cybercrime be effective without taking into account the philosophy of internationalization and freedom that is enjoyed in-large by the internet’s business model?


Illustration Backpage




Illegal Activities on Ads Sites Is No Secret

In 2011, in France’s n°3334 report by the commission for laws,quoted VivaStreet’s Directoradmitted that, “the ‘Erotica’ section is dedicated to sexually oriented ads,” which included prostitution ads, despite a regulation that prohibits those types on the site . Indeed, VivaStreet’s recent complaint is related to a  “massage” advertisement that implicated a 14 year old girl in the “adult and payable” part of the site, which is, in reality, a prostitution ad. The girl’s father said that the ad was likely posted with the help of a third party. Managers at VivaStreet claim that every ad is examined and modified to be legally compliant, so  are we not dealing with facts characterized as procuring via disguised prostitution and payments ? In France, VivaStreet,which hosts over 8000 “massage” ads, is not the only site causing concern. Nearly 11,000 ads of the same type are posted on How many of these ads are disguised prostitution offers? How many of them are posted by third parties or organized trafficking networks?


Also Read   

>>> Fondation Scelles : « Digital Society and Combat Against Cybercrime » (FR only)

>>> Fondation Scelles : « How The Internet Spurred Sexual Services Swapping » (FR only)


The End of Impunity

Last October, Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California,  launched a proceeding that led to the arrest of Backpage’sCEOand two of the most important shareholders of the online ads site, for the pimping and sexual trafficking of minors. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted an 850% increase of the suspected cases of sexual trade involving minors because of the internet; alarmingly, Backpage is alluded to in 7 out of 10 of those cases. In October, the CEO of Rentboy, a male escort site, was arrested for “promoting prostitution”. Also in October, while Facebook launched its mobile platform MarketPlace that offers individuals a forum for sales,the New York Times and BBC pointed out that there were prostitution ads from the very beginning.

Fake ads were published experimentally on VivaStreet and Backpage by journalists and survey teams  in France and the United States. This showed how rapidly and vast in number  that “potential clients” make contact as soon as a new ad is published in the “adult” section. It was like “a piece of fresh meat” was thrown to a pit of hungry tigers…


A Business Model in Question

The profits are significant and cannot be neglected. In France, the Ourgaud Report, of the French Ministry of the Interior,  noted that online prostitution may have generated a turnover of 540 million euros in 2014. The turnover of Backpage rose to $135 million in 2014, 90% of which was almost certainly from the “adult” page. The ads posted on VivaStreet in the “Eroticasection cost 110€  and 500€ per month depending on their place on the site. One can easily imagine the gains generated each year on this platform, considering the 8424 ads entered in the adult section-to-date for all of France. This business model makes millions for its  owners, however it is socially damaging to  France and the United States as it simultaneously promotes prostitution, and sexual violence and trafficking.


To read >>> Fondation Scelles : « The Economy in Danger »


A Lengthy Juridical Struggle

The parallel between France and the United States does not stop there: the ad site’s owners defend themselves similarly when accused, primarily claiming their absence of responsibility for content published by their users. In the United States, ad platforms and social networks are protected from accusations of illegal content published by a user under section 230 of the CDA (Communications Decency Act) Michael Bowman, a Justice of the Supreme Court in Sacramento also filed a motion to stop the proceedings against Backpage’s Director. According to Justice Bowman, Backpage cannot be accused even if its promoters garner benefits from the published ad and, or, its publicity.


However, Congress recently amended a federal law to make it  illegal to advertise commercial sexual offers involving minors when the platform’s sponsor are aware of these proceedings. Concerning Backpage, its trial has been adjourned for further deliberation until December 9th.


In France, the April 13th 2016 law against the prostitution system compels internet providers and sponsors to participate in the fight against the dissemination of content offering fee-basedsexual services, and requires them to inform the appropriate authority about any publication violating  the Pimping Law and to publish how they will achieve this. Additionally, the 2004 law for Confidence In The Digital Economy stresses that platforms with content like VivaStreet: “...cannot be held criminally  responsible for information stored on the request of a recipient of these services, if they were not aware of the illicit activities or information, or if they became aware that they promptly removed the content and made it impossible to access.”


A New Paradigm Or Going Round In A Circle?

VivaStreet and Backpage both claim their goodwill and cooperation with police by reporting suspicious cases of trafficking and sexual exploitation. The question is then to what extent? Are they ready to question a business model that garners a high profit, even if it means they flirt with pimping  at the expense of victims? If  user’s ads are amended by the site’s staff to be made legal, does that not mean that the user’s intention is known explicitly? That said, is the responsibility of the site’s managers’ fully engaged?


If the digital world stands against any change in the current paradigm and is not willing to defend platforms like Backpage but willing to defend the internet as-is, then the same is not true for those fighting against the prostitution and trafficking systems with purposes of sexual exploitation. According to the non-profit, Shared Hope International, there is no reason we cannot change the law without losing provisions by the CDA:  “It cannot be everything or nothing.” The Scelles Foundation also recalled during their seminar, « Digital Society - “From The Best To The Worst: Sexual Exploitation Via The Internet »(FR only)that the main point was to strike a balance between the protection of our freedoms and the effective fight against illegal online activity.


Learn more :

>>> Fondation Scelles, “Social Networks User’s Cyber-vulnerability” Prostitution - Exploitation, Prosecution, Repression, 4th Global Report, Paris, 2016

>>> Prostitution: VivaStreet Is The Target of A Complaint”, An Inquiry by Secrets d’info- France Inter





The Scelles Foundation in the press

  • (ES - Milenio) El ser humano no está a la venta
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