ON A LATE DECEMBER AFTERNOON, Sara Loe pulled up to a house in Savin Hill to drop off her 15-year-old daughter, Jane, at a friend’s. Jane had said the two girls, friends since kindergarten, were going to the CambridgeSide Galleria to do some post-holiday shopping.
In the more than three years since, Sara (her name and her daughter’s were changed to protect their privacy) has played this mundane scene out in her head thousands of times: stopping across the street from the house, offering her daughter spending money, her daughter refusing it saying she had gift cards, then stamping across the street in leggings and pink Doc Martens boots.
Sara has now shared this story with her attorneys and a documentary filmmaker and in testimony she submitted to the US Senate. Every time, she explains how Jane had begun distancing herself from Sara around her 15th birthday, acting more sullen and moody, the result, Sara assumed, of hormones and teenage rebellion. Sara and her husband of two decades had run a tight ship for their three kids in their Dorchester home. As a stay-at-home mom, Sara shuttled Jane to dance classes and monitored her social media feeds and text messages, asking questions about any new friends. “If you ask my kids,” says Sara, “they’ll probably say I’m a pain in the butt.”
Parsing the memory again on a clear morning this January in the 48th-floor offices of her attorneys, she has a moment of revulsion when she remembers the pink boots. “I hate those boots now,” Sara says. “To me they seem like trouble.”
But all was fine that December night in 2013, until Sara checked in via text and voicemail to see if Jane would be home by her 9 p.m. curfew. Sara and her husband grew concerned as the clock ticked past 10, then 11, without any response from Jane. Sara went to the Sprint website and pulled up the records showing activity to and from her daughter’s phone. She sent a group text message asking anyone who’d been in contact with Jane to reach out.
One man wrote back saying he’d gotten her daughter’s number from Backpage.com, but stressed he wasn’t with her. Another texted saying the same. Sara hadn’t heard of Backpage. Pulling up the site on her computer, it looked like an innocuous, even dull, set of classified links. When she put her daughter’s phone number into the search box, “the pictures popped up, and I almost died,” she says.
On her screen was an escort ad featuring photos of a scantily clad young woman. The images didn’t reveal Jane’s face, but Sara immediately recognized her daughter’s underwear, as any parent who has folded mountains of laundry might. One photo was even a selfie taken in Jane’s bedroom. The ads — there were several — each blared that this “new,” “sweet,” and “playful” girl was available that evening.
Left unsaid: The teenager was being held against her will and sold for sex.
THE WEB IS A TRICKY PLACE. In less than 30 years, it’s changed how people communicate, engage in commerce — and find love. For tens of millions of us, that might take the form of a snarky Facebook post, a Craigslist ad, or a profile on a dating site like Match.com. But it’s also opened up an insidious venue for traffickers seeking to profit from the sale of sex, particularly with minors. Their website of choice has been Dallas-based Backpage.com, which by one estimate held an 80 percent market share for online commercial sex ads. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children saw an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking to its CyberTipline between 2010 and 2015, more than 70 percent of it tied to Backpage. Thanks in large part to its sex ads, the site had revenues of $135 million in 2014.
Despite cultural taboos and strict laws about child pornography, posting an ad for sex with a minor is as easy as posting one for used snow tires, says Lisa Goldblatt Grace, cofounder and director of Boston’s anti-trafficking advocacy and services group My Life My Choice. Last year, her group helped more than 150 Eastern Massachusetts teenagers, most of whom had been exploited. Their traffickers ranged from shrewd, experienced pimps to the individual who lures a young woman and within hours is “selling her for $40 and a pack of Newports,” Goldblatt Grace says. Traffickers typically obscure the face of a child like Jane, but use code words or emojis in ads to signify a minor is for sale.
Many traffickers who have previously sold guns or drugs have found sex trafficking offers “less risk, and it’s high return,” says Lieutenant Detective Donna Gavin, who runs the crimes against children and human trafficking units of the Boston Police Department. Victims in the city are, on average, just 14 years old when they’re first sold, she says. Pimps prey on them because children that age, through a mix of fear and loyalty, usually won’t tell people what’s happened to them. Traffickers also prey on homeless kids or kids from the child welfare system, because, Gavin says, “they have nowhere to go and no family support.”
Jane had support at home, but she, like so many other teens, had begun pushing her boundaries. She had taken that racy selfie, and she didn’t make it to the mall, as she’d told her mother. Shortly after Jane and her pink boots hopped out of the car, she was picked up by a man she’d met on Facebook. He drove her to a Boston apartment where, during the course of the evening, he assaulted Jane, took her phone, then used the suggestive selfie and photos he took to create an “escort” ad on Backpage. Within minutes, calls and texts started coming in, and he drove Jane to a Foxborough motel to meet a man who had responded to the ad. Her trafficker waited outside the room while the man raped Jane. Then the trafficker pocketed the john’s money and some marijuana.
HOW CAN A SITE LIKE BACKPAGE get away with posting ads selling children for sex? It’s actually thanks to a federal law called the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
Section 230 of this law is so important it’s been called the cornerstone of the Internet. Conceived in 1996, it protects websites from being sued over anonymous comments, which had happened to early online services like Prodigy. But the authors of the CDA couldn’t anticipate how the Internet would evolve. In the last 20 years, websites of all sorts have claimed protection under Section 230, saying they can’t be held responsible for the “speech” posted by their users. Advocates say the law is essential for Internet users and companies that otherwise would have to spend heavily to ensure user-generated content didn’t expose them to vast legal damages.
“There is nothing about Section 230 that prevents law enforcement from going after people who are breaking the law,” asserts David Greene, civil liberties director of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.
If only it were that easy.
AFTER BEING ASSAULTED in Foxborough, Jane was able to make her way back home to Dorchester, arriving early the next morning. Jane would not tell her parents what happened, but was clearly traumatized. Sara and her husband took her to the hospital, and slowly began to piece together her ordeal. (Ultimately Jane would need 16 days of outpatient care and months of therapy. She was not willing to discuss the incident publicly but allowed her mother to speak on her behalf.) Then they notified the FBI and Boston police and cooperated with the subsequent criminal investigation and prosecution against the trafficker. The man who posted the ad received five to seven years in prison, plus five years’ probation, on charges that included human trafficking.
The married man who assaulted Jane cooperated with police and faced no charges. But Sara was still infuriated that any of this was allowed to happen at all, particularly as the ads featuring Jane in her underwear remained on the site for at least a week.
She wasn’t the only outraged parent. People across the country had begun taking action against Backpage, filing civil suits against the site in St. Louis and Seattle. In both cases, Backpage cited Section 230, which caused the judge in the St. Louis case to dismiss it. The Seattle case is ongoing.
Meanwhile, John Montgomery, a former managing partner at the white-shoe Boston law firm Ropes & Gray, had been watching these cases develop. Montgomery, working pro bono, prepared a case with a novel legal approach: a federal suit alleging that Backpage had deployed tools to help traffickers sell underage victims without being detected and in so doing invalidated its immunity claim under Section 230. Montgomery needed plaintiffs. Three survivors, including Jane, agreed to help.
A few months after the case was filed in October 2014, the US Senate began holding hearings investigating Backpage’s role in the trafficking of children. And a Boston Globe article on the lawsuit caught the attention of Mary Mazzio, a local documentary filmmaker. She read the lawsuit and came away boggled at the scope of the problem in the United States. “I thought sex trafficking was confined to developing countries,” says Mazzio. She began crisscrossing the country, conducting interviews for a film about the legal fight against Backpage. Sara was among those who agreed to be interviewed.
In the ensuing two years, Sara and her daughter have watched as Ropes & Gray attorneys brought the case before the US District Court, where they lost, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals, where they also lost, with the courts holding that Section 230 shielded Backpage from fault. Undeterred, Montgomery last August petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear the case. Last month, on the morning of January 9, the high court declined his request. Montgomery and his team broke the news to Jane and the other plaintiffs. It looked as if they’d run out of options.
But that evening, a Senate investigative subcommittee released a scathing report on the inner workings of Backpage. Its findings concluded that for years Backpage had used an electronic filter to scrub postings of words like “lolita,” “young,” “teen,” and “rape” that might tip off law enforcement to the fact that minors were being advertised for sex. The report also found that some of Backpage’s moderators, hired to monitor the site for illicit activity, had contacted prostitutes advertised there and used their services. Within hours, Backpage shut down its adult ads, claiming it was facing censorship. The next day, its top executives appeared at a charged Senate hearing but refused to answer questions.
Mazzio was at the Senate hearings gathering last-minute footage for her film, I Am Jane Doe (opening February 10, including at the AMC Framingham 16). A former corporate attorney, Mazzio marvels at the creative lawyering she’s seen. “Backpage has remarkably shifted the focus from child sex trafficking to ‘This is a violation of our First Amendment rights,’ ” she says. “Congress has to act. Someone has to make it crystal clear that Section 230 was not written to permit the sale of children.”
FOR NOW, THE IMPACT of Backpage’s adult ad shutdown is unclear. While it’s no longer an open marketplace for sex, many ads have already begun to migrate to the “dating” section of the site, and to other adult sites the company owns. For Sara and parents like her, victory will come only when the law will no longer enable websites to profit from the sale of their children.
Jane is 18 now. Her mom says she’s finally stopped blaming herself for the rape. And she’s come to believe her story can help others. “No matter how much you try to protect your kids and how involved you are, it really could happen to anyone,” Sara says, looking out Ropes & Gray’s windows at the expanse of Boston.
“We thought she was going to the mall that day.”