The Stream

Children for sale

Parents of sex trafficked minors battle online sex ads giant.

A vulnerable teenager frustrated with her parents leaves home, lured by an older girl promising a life without rules. The “big sister” hooks the teenage girl on drugs, forming the “leash” that prevents her from escaping. Pictures are taken of the girl and, without her knowledge, posted online, where she is sold as a prostitute.

This is all too familiar a story for thousands of young people sold for sex across the United States through the website As the second largest online classified advertising site in the country, approximately 90 percent of the company’s profits are derived from the “adult” and “escort” sections, according to a new US Senate Subcommittee report. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says Backpage is involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports it receives from the public.   

Survivors and their families are trying to stop Backpage, but “I Am Jane Doe”, a new documentary film premiering in the US next month, reveals their fight is an uphill battle. They meet resistance not just from the company, but from special interest groups and an internet freedom law.

Backpage and other sites like it have successfully evaded legal action under the protection of the Communications Decency Act, or CDA. The 1996 law states that website owners are not responsible for content posted by users. The CDA has the backing of Silicon Valley tech giants Facebook and Google, and free speech internet activists who say shutting down parts of classified advertisement websites like Backpage and Craigslist is a threat to freedom of speech online. They say it would create a backdoor to censorship that could have far-reaching consequences.

Backpage says it is doing everything in its power to end human trafficking on its site, and that its review and editing process is a key part of the effort. The Senate Subcommittee report accuses the sex ads giant of knowingly helping clients doctor their ad copy to avoid detection by authorities for selling underage girls.

The Stream talks with the director of “I Am Jane Doe,” as well as parents featured in the documentary. They discuss the nightmare their daughters endured, and how free speech online has played a controversial role in their fight for justice.

In this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Mary Mazzio @marymazzio
Director, “I am Jane Doe”

Kubiiki Pride @kpandfamily
Mother of “M.A.”, sex trafficking survivor

Brooke Axtell @SurvivorHealing
Founder and Director, She is Rising

Elizabeth Brown @ENBrown
Associate editor, Reason magazine

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.