Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has seized upon the tragedy of underage prostitution to try and boost his anemic approval rating.
For the past six weeks, representatives from Backpage.com--the classified-ad site owned by Village Voice Media, which also owns Seattle Weekly--have met in good faith with the Mayor. In each and every instance, Mayor McGinn convened a press conference, issued a press release, or leaked data--prior to contacting us, prior to canceling the city's advertising, and prior to sitting down with us.Nonetheless, Backpage.com executive Carl Ferrer agreed to all four demands McGinn made in relation to the company's adult classifieds. Ferrer put the decision to train with the Seattle Police Department, as well as Backpage.com's agreement to cooperate with all four of the Mayor's concerns, in writing and sent it to him on Thursday. The document was leaked to various websites, blogs, and newspapers, including Seattle Weekly's direct competitor, the Stranger.
This is not the behavior of a serious elected official seeking a solution to a public-policy issue. This is the behavior of a desperate media hound.
Mayor McGinn has not acknowledged that we have agreed to all four of his demands. Instead, he announced that new security measures proposed by Backpage.com, as well as our assent to work more closely with the Seattle Police Department, do not satisfy his agenda.
Mayor McGinn's agenda is to bump his approval rating, which most recently sat at 23%--lower than President Richard Nixon during the end days of Watergate. There simply is no other conclusion after watching Mayor McGinn flog the press as he repudiates solutions.
Give one second to consider the obvious: Backpage.com agrees that every effort should be made to keep the underage form utilizing adult classifieds. To that purpose, Backpage.com has invested time, resources, people, and cutting-edge technology. The classified staff work hand-in-hand with child-safety advocates like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as law-enforcement agencies from local police departments to the FBI.
Village Voice Media has also endorsed Senate Bill 596, which would, for the first time, provide federal funds for comprehensive shelters devoted exclusively to underage victims of prostitution.
The attempt to put this history at the disposal of McGinn was met with grandstanding, not results.
Let's examine specifics.
Mayor McGinn now claims that the only age verification he will accept would require an individual who wants to place a classified ad walk into the office of Seattle Weekly with a driver's license.
This is not a solution. This is a stunt.
This particular stunt ignores the complexity and enormity of the web. Yet the mayor encourges this approach, claiming that The Stranger already utilizes "in-person" classifieds in their adult section, Naughty Northwest.
The Stranger, which The Seattle Times described on July 23 as "a de facto arm of the McGinn campaign," operates seven sections within Naughty Northwest: Escorts, Sensual Touch, Fetish, Phone Services, TV/She Males, Adult Employment, and Personals.
When examined last week, in three of those sections The Stranger didn't have a single ad. In three other sections, the paper has a grand total of six ads. (More recently, that total fluctuated up to 42 ads.) In Personals, The Stranger has several hundred ads.
Meanwhile, Backpage.com runs approximately 30 million ads per year in North America alone. It is second only to Craigslist. Like most large classified sites, a portion is adult. On Backpage.com, that portion is approximately 15%. According to Google, Backpage.com has 35 million unique users.
With all due respect, The Stranger is not operating a website, it is operating a roadside stand with the occasional apricot for sale. Naughty Northwest is not a digital platform where tens of millions of transactions take place annually.
Let's imagine for a moment that Backpage.com mimicked the ethos and efficiency of the Department of Motor Vehicles as it touched and inspected by hand millions of driver's licenses. Would that provide the age-verification security Mayor McGinn claims to want?
On August 1, The Seattle Times reprinted a Washington Post investigation: "Chinese Firm Floods U.S. with Fake I.Ds." The article detailed how teenagers routinely obtained phony driver's licenses, and how their caliber and means of acquisition had improved dramatically with emerging technology.
"To the naked eye, even the practiced eye of most bartenders and police officers, the counterfeits look perfect," wrote the reporter.
The shameless McGinn went on the local NPR station the same day and, ignoring the article, continued to extol the approach taken by his friends at The Stranger.
By contrast, Backpage.com began discussions with a vendor who uses government-issued databases to offer age and I.D. verification. This is the online system adopted by tobacco, alcohol, credit card, lottery, and overseas gaming businesses, as well as by movie studios.
No approach is foolproof, but this level of security is currently unprecedented in the classified-advertising field. You will always have people who stay up late at night trying to game security systems. Yet the mayor's tactic is to argue that Backpage.com ought to shut down if six million adults include anyone underage in the mix.
If an underage student gets into a bar, you don't close down the distillers of alcohol.
Mayor McGinn understands this. When Seattle police were unable to control rowdy bar patrons after last call, the mayor's solution was to call for an extension of the hours in which bars could stay open, in order to stagger outflow. Of course, the saloons of Seattle supported McGinn's run for public office.
With his track record, it is little wonder that the citizens of Seattle gave McGinn a 23% approval rating two months ago.
Voters must wait for the next election to deal with the mayor. As for Backpage.com, there will be no more meetings with McGinn. Instead, Backpage will continue to cooperate with the Seattle Police Department and to seek the highest level of online security to screen against underage exploitation in adult classifieds.