Ethics of shutting down Backpage.com for promoting prostitution and child sex trafficking

Backpage.com was was online site with classified ads. Many of these ads were for sexual services. Interest in the site increased when craigslist banned such ads from its site. In April 2018, the US government shut down the site

The main issue that led to backpage being shut down was child sex trafficking. Ads appeared on the site for children who had been abducted and forced into prostitution. Though Backpage.com was the platform on which the ads appeared, it was ultimately held criminally liable for its users content after the U.S. Department of Justice took action against it. The US Congress also recently passed a bill along the same lines as this action.

This provides a great example of the contrast of ethical approaches.

Even though the main goal of the government’s action was to protect sex workers and exploited children, “sex workers across the U.S. and Canada swarmed social media to air concerns rarely heard in political discourse: To them, Backpage’s demise meant the end of safeguards and a reliable revenue stream in a profession that’s not going anywhere.”

How do we approach this topic? Should we stick to the moral principle that prostitution is morally wrong and should not be facilitated in any way? What about the principle of protecting free speech? Free association? How do we reconcile conflicting moral principles?

Should we look at this like a consequentialist and say that prostitution exists whether or not it is legal and we should try to protect workers whose professions make them vulnerable to abuse? What if these actions don’t do anything to limit child sex trafficking and it simply moves to another site?

What is the responsibility of the platform on which this whole debate is playing out?

A few interesting resources to explore this topic.

Reply All: No more safe harbor

The Podcast, Reply All covered this story with some great reporting. You can find a link for the episode as well as the transcript.

“But the thing that caught my eye in the aftermath of this story was that there were all these sex workers on the internet and they were all saying the same thing: this law is a disaster. Even though it’s supposed to go after sex trafficking,It’s actually going to go after us, voluntary sex workers. And that Backpage, it was not the boogeyman that the government had made it out to be, it was actually a website that was doing a lot of good.
“And I wondered – how could that be true? How can a website that sold children be good for the world? So I spent the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to sex workers.”

https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/119-no-more-safe-harbor

“Sex workers ‘devastated,’ look to alternatives after Backpage closure”

Backpage didn’t turn me into a sex worker, any more than Youtube can turn people in musicians or comedians. It was just the medium. A really good, really helpful medium that was free and accessible.

— Sarah Fenix (@sarahthemoose) April 7, 2018

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/04/13/backpage-closure-sex-workers-react/513802002/

“Backpage’s Sex Ads Are Gone. Child Trafficking? Hardly.”

As for the bill, rather than narrowly targeting websites that knowingly advertise these despicable practices, it would allow police to criminally pursue a website that has no idea it is hosting, and has procedures in place to prevent, ads featuring criminal activity. It does so because the “intent standard” – what a prosecutor has to prove the defendant knew – is vague.

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