The investigation into Dallas- based, Backpage.com and the arrest of CEO Carl Ferrer is welcome news to sex-trafficking survivor Tonya Stafford, even though in her case she wasn’t trafficked by a website or an accused online pimp.
She was sold into sex slavery by her own mother at the age of 13.
"She sold me for drugs, she sold me for drugs,” said Stafford, the CEO of It’s Going To Be OK, Inc., an organization she founded to fight human trafficking.
After being held as a sex slave for years, she finally escaped with the help of a neighbor and now devotes her time to helping others make the same escape.
"It's a 32 billion dollar industry,” she said “and it's happening in your backyard.”
The backyard for the moment, is the Oak Lawn headquarters of Backpage.com.
And Houston, with the arrest of Ferrer on charges of pimping: profiting from the sex trade. He is expected to be extradited to California to face the initial charges against him.
"It's a great, great victory. It's the small victories that count,” said Stafford.
A small victory for a survivor who knows it's just the tip of a multi billion dollar iceberg.
"It's a step toward knocking it down. We're chipping away at it. There's going to be another one that pops up. And then we have to work toward getting that one shut down as well."
"It's definitely an issue in this community,” said Bill Bernstein, Deputy Director of Mosaic Family Services, an organization providing services to newly resettled refugees, combating family violence, and helping rescue human trafficking victims. Of the more than 500 trafficking survivors his group has helped, he says some were advertised on Backpage.com.
But in Dallas alone, the sex trade brings in an estimated $99 million a year with an average of 400 trafficked teens on the street each night. Bernstein says the crackdown on Backpage.com while welcomed, is just a small part of the battle.
"It's good that people's attention gets drawn to this because really we haven't even scratched the surface of knowing how much trafficking there is all around us,” Bernstein said.
"It is a big deal. It's a really, really big deal,” added Stafford while also warning the fight online and on the streets continues.
The raid of Backpage.com’s Dallas office and the arrest of its CEO is an election year stunt, not a good-faith action by law enforcement. The complaint and search warrant make clear that (1) prostitution ads violate Backpage.com’s policies against the posting of illegal content, (2) the company blocked the posting of ads using terms that violated those policies, and (3) Backpage.com removed ads when contacted by law enforcement. The actions of the California and Texas Attorneys General are flatly illegal. They ignore the holdings of numerous federal courts that the First Amendment protects the ads on Backpage.com. The actions of the Attorneys General also violate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act preempting state actions such as this one and immunizing web hosts of third-party created content. Backpage.com will take all steps necessary to end this frivolous prosecution and will pursue its full remedies under federal law against the state actors who chose to ignore the law, as it has done successfully in other cases.
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