For the past six weeks, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has seized upon the tragedy of underage prostitution to try to boost his anemic approval rating. During that time, 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. Yet in each and every instance, McGinn has convened a press conference, issued a press release, or leaked data prior to contacting us, canceling the city’s advertising, or sitting down with our representatives.
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.
Backpage.com executive Carl Ferrer agreed to all four demands McGinn recently made in relation to the company’s adult classifieds. Yet the mayor didn’t acknowledge this agreement. 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.
What is that agenda? To bump his approval rating, which at last glance sat at 23 percent—lower than President Richard Nixon during the final days of Watergate.
Take one second to consider the obvious: Backpage.com agrees that every effort should be made to keep the underage from utilizing adult classifieds. To that purpose, it has invested time, resources, people, and cutting-edge technology. Backpage.com‘s staff works hand-in-hand with child-safety advocates like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as law-enforcement agencies ranging 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 provide McGinn with this history was met with grandstanding, not results. Let’s examine specifics.
The mayor now claims that the only age verification he will accept would require an individual who wants to place a classified ad to walk into the Seattle Weekly office with a driver’s license. This is not a solution. It’s a stunt, one which ignores the complexity and enormity of the web.
The mayor claims that The Stranger, the Weekly‘s direct competitor, already utilizes “in-person” classifieds in its adult section, Naughty Northwest. But the comparison with Backpage.com doesn’t hold.
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’s/Shemales, Adult Employment, and Personals. When examined last week, in three of those sections The Stranger didn’t have a single ad. In Personals, The Stranger had several hundred.
Meanwhile, Backpage.com runs approximately 30 million ads per year in North America alone, making it second only to Craigslist. And like most large classified sites—but unlike Naughty Northwest— only a portion of those ads are adult (on Backpage.com, that portion is approximately 15 percent). Backpage.com, then, is a digital platform where tens of millions of transactions take place annually, while Naughty Northwest is less a website than a roadside stand with the occasional passerby.
But even dismissing the apples-and-oranges comparison, would looking at millions of driver’s licenses really provide the age-verification security McGinn claims to want? In a word, no.
On August 1, The Seattle Times reprinted a Washington Post investigation: “Chinese Firms Flood U.S. With Fake IDs.” The article detailed how teenagers routinely obtain 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.
Nevertheless, that same day McGinn went on KUOW, and, ignoring the article, continued to extol the approach taken by his friends at The Stranger. By contrast, Backpage.com has begun discussions with a vendor who uses government-issued databases to offer age and I.D. verification. This is the system adopted by online tobacco, alcohol, and overseas gaming businesses, with clients ranging from American Express to the New York State Lottery.
No approach is foolproof, but this level of security is currently unprecedented in the classified-advertising field. There will always be people willing to break the law. Yet the mayor’s tactic is to argue that Backpage.com ought to shut down if even one out of six million adults is lying about his or her age—a standard that would have disastrous economic effects were it to be applied to some other friends of McGinn’s: the bar owners who helped get him elected (and whom he’s now helping in turn by trying to eliminate the 2 a.m. closing time).
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, we’ll 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.