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Tomorrow, Congress will hold hearings on the sex trafficking of minors. Among the witnesses will be a representative from Craigslist. The company recently shut down the adult services section of its website after repeated threats from state law enforcement officials.
But, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, Craigslist isn't the only legitimate online site that offer ads for sex.
LAURA SYDELL: State attorneys general from around the country set their sights on Craigslist, even though it wasnt alone.
Sergeant GREG ALBIN (San Jose Police Department): Craigslist is only one of many vehicles out there on the Internet that post advertisements for illicit sexual acts.
SYDELL: Sergeant Greg Albin with the San Jose Police Vice Unit. Albin says if shutting the Craigslist site down saves one child from prostitution, that's great, but...
Sgt. ALBIN: I don't think shutting the site down is going to be the answer because people will work around it.
SYDELL: In fact, Albin says they already are. He pointed out a website called Craigslisterotics.com, not affiliated with Craigslist, that was actively soliciting traffic from the shut-down adult services section of the online classified site.
And online safety advocates like Parry Aftab of WiredSafety are expecting even more sites to pop up.
Ms. PARRY AFTAB (WiredSafety): There's money that can be made here. So I suspect that you're going to be seeing a lot more of them through photo, video and new offering sites that are out there.
SYDELL: There are also plenty of ads for illicit sex that can be found on major commercial websites other than Craigslist: Google, eBay. But San Jose Police Sergeant Abin says the big companies aren't that helpful.
Sgt. ALBIN: None of them go over and above to cooperate with police investigation. All of them consider confidentiality quite a bit. All of them rely on their First Amendment rights.
SYDELL: All of the major online companies claim they don't allow ads for illicit sex. But search Google for local escort services, and dozens of sponsored links from the companys ad network pop up with headlines like Sugar Daddy for Me and Meet Real Naughty Women Tonight.
A company spokesperson said Google screens ads through a combination of human review and technological filters, but things slip through the cracks.
Ebay's Spanish language site Loquo has ads for sex, though eBay says it's going to take them down. Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage.com, is filled with graphic pictures. The company did not respond to NPR's questions.
Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, says the Internet has increased the sex trade in minors. Pimps once had to put young girls on the street, where it was easier for police to spot them.
Ms. MALIKA SAADA SAAR (Executive Director, Rebecca Project): Now those girls are hidden because of the role of the Internet, and so an individual can go from buying a couch to buying a girl in the full privacy of his home.
SYDELL: Saada Saar estimates that as many as 300,000 minors are part of the sex trade in the U.S.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal spearheaded the effort by some 40 state attorneys general to get Craigslist to shut its adult services section.
Mr. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (Attorney General, Connecticut): We have other sites in our sights, so to speak.
SYDELL: Blumenthal says he's in discussion with other companies but wouldn't say which ones.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: This effort is simply to persuade responsible sites that they must have the will and the wherewithal to eliminate these prostitution ads by using screening, flagging the ads through community involvement, ridding themselves of them and putting people over profits.
SYDELL: Craigslist and other sites are largely protected from liability by the Communications Decency Act, which exempts sites from legal responsibility for what their users put up.
But at least a few legal analysts point to another law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which makes sites liable if they make money off of those ads for illegal services.
Still, some online safety advocates like Parry Aftab think the attacks by the attorneys general on legitimate companies like Craigslist are misguided.
Ms. AFTAB: I don't think it's going to make women and minors any safer. I think instead, you're going to be seeing a lot more underground websites that are run by people who don't care as much as Craig does.
SYDELL: Law enforcement officials admit it is like a game of Whack-a-Mole: Every time you shut down one site another one pops up.
Laura Sydell, NPR news, San Francisco.
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